This Sunday, Sinners in the Kingdom of God
There are two ways to feel out of place in the Catholic Church.
One way is to look at the Church’s high ideals and strict morality, witnessed to by generations of saints, and wonder, “How can I possibly ever live up to that?”
The other way is to look at the Church full of sinners and say, “Seriously? This is supposed to be the People of God and the Body of Christ bringing me to salvation?”
Both are front and center on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
In the Gospel a light shines on a whole region — but its people must repent one by one.
The Gospel shows this dual reality of the Church — the light to nations and the difficult path for individuals.
Learning John has been arrested, Jesus moves into action. He leaves Nazareth to live in Capernaum so that “what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled” that it can be said that from that region “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”
This is the great fulfillment of a prophecy about the fate of a people; this is the dawning of the light of Christ on a whole region.
Yet, next we hear, “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” This blessed region was still filled with sinners who needed to repent.
The bright light of Christ and the darkness of his people always coincide on earth.
The Second Reading shows just how backwards the Church got in a short time. Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth not long after Jesus died and rose.
“There are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?”
The Christians have already started warring groups. Paul practically begs, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you.”
This Church which is supposed to be a beacon shining out with the light of Christ was fractured by rivalries and infighting from the very start.
Paul’s message is the same as Christ’s: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand — only now, the Kingdom is the Church.
What is this Kingdom that is at hand, the Kingdom Peter will be given the keys to and that Andrew will be a leader in? It is the Church, which is not just the Church of sinners we see around us, the Church we name in the creed that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”
The Church is filled with frail humanity, with all of our weakness, mistakes and corruption. But it is holy because it also unfailingly delivers exactly what we need: The sacraments that incorporate us into God’s life for eternity.
As the Catechism points out, “Christ the Lord already reigns through the Church, but all the things of this world are not yet subjected to him.” (No. 680).
The Church is the Kingdom of heaven because it unites Christians in a family that exists in eternity.
The family is a great analogy for the Church, in both its high calling and current weakness. Like the Church, we can heap praise on the family as an institution, but it is harder to praise any particular family.
The family is the cornerstone of society, the future of humanity passes by way of the family, the family is the school of virtue and charity, it protects and ennobles the next generation; the family is great and good.
But when we look at our own family, we notice that Uncle Doug drinks too much and swears around the kids, sister-in-Law Jane is divorcing Al and it’s getting ugly, and we may even have that relative who made a ton of money in an unscrupulous way but whose gifts we all accept and kind of like.
When our own families fall short of all the family can be, we don’t give up on the family as such. The same with the Church.
Peter and Andrew were called out of their families into this new family.
In the long form of the Gospel, we learn “As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,” Simon Peter and Andrew, “casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.”
Jesus doesn’t ask them to stop being what they are; he says “Come after me. I will make you fishers of men.” He takes their personal identities and rather than change them, stretches and deepens them, even while respecting who they are.
But at the same time that he is respecting the individuality of the two brothers, he compares the men they seek to schools of fish.
This is the same paradox of a God who sees us as his people with a high calling, and as individuals who need a lot of work.
We are a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading, where: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness” but we have to individually declarewith the Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”
It is a decision we have to make each Sunday, where we receive God’s blessing as a group — then leave to live it one by one.