We have all heard the jokes about the soul arriving at the pearly gates who has to get past St. Peter and enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whether the jokes are humorous, offensive or rude, they have one thing in common. St. Peter is not the one to be convinced of a person’s suitability for the kingdom. That work needs to have been carried out much earlier, because after death it is just too late.
Certainly, St. Peter holds the keys of the kingdom. This office was given him by Jesus and we can read the details in the gospel account. Through the revelation of the Father, Peter had just confessed his faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and the Lord declared “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16) This authority was given not to Peter alone but to every man who succeeded him as head of the Church. We therefore understand Peter as custodian of the keys of the kingdom. Subsequently, this authority which is from Jesus Christ, is exercised through the Church to whom Jesus gave victory over death.
The Catechism gives clear instruction on the authority of Peter and thereafter, down through the ages to the present day.”Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: “Feed my sheep.” The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgements, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom. (CCC 553)
The kingdom of heaven seems a long way off when we consider it as somewhere we hope to go after our deaths. But this realm also exists in real time, a kingdom won for us at Easter through the triumph of Jesus over death.
Jesus testified to the existence of the kingdom in many different ways using parables and symbols. The Catechism describes this in detail and the entire section 541 to 546 is worth pondering.
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe in the gospel.’ ‘To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth. Now the Father’s will is “to raise up men to share in his own divine life.” He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, “on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom.” (CCC 541)
We can compare ourselves to the people of Israel as they heard Jesus’ proclamation and his use of familiar images to describe the reality of a kingdom present in the midst of everyday life. It is a cause for joy; a woman sweeps out her house to find a valuable coin she has lost, then on finding it she calls her neighbours to rejoice with her. It is like yeast a housewife mixes with a measure of flour. It is the mustard seed that although the smallest of seeds, will grow to the greatest height.
But there are other allusions. Jesus declares that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Even perhaps more strange, is the command to become like little children. The kingdom is offered but never imposed. Those who fail to accept it are like those damaged fish that the fishermen cast away when the sorting out is being carried out.
However, there is a difference between hearing and listening. Nicodemus the teacher sought Jesus at night and looked for more instruction. However apart from the probing of some lawyers and scribes, there is not much evidence in scripture to show that other people were taking this teaching to heart. They seem to have mostly been interested in Jesus’ healing ministry, the miraculous food he provided and witnessing the spectacle of demonic deliverance. Are we any different? Do we think enough about the kingdom of God which Jesus said was the reason for his teaching?
The third mystery of light of the holy rosary is the Proclamation of the Kingdom which entails the universal call to holiness. Contemplating these mysteries helps us consider two kingdoms. There is the earthly kingdom that we enter through our baptism and the kingdom of heaven that we hope will be our final destiny.
However, when questioned by Pilate, Jesus declared that his kingdom was not of this world. If it was, he would be seen in majesty with a cohort of angels defending him. Although he had openly proclaimed the kingdom that paradoxically exists, yet is still to come, this concept seemed to be too hard for many to understand. At the same time Jesus declared that God reveals his eternal truths to children, to the poor and to sinners.
When the people saw Jesus appear wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe as the gospel recounts, did they make up their minds that this cannot be the king? Is that one of the reasons they wanted him taken away and the reason they shouted for the other one – the revolutionary?
While the kingdom is present, it is not easily discernible. Perhaps it is only possible to really believe if we try to understand the kingdom as existing in shadow or as something that is upside-down or inside-out.
How does that affect us? As inheritors of the kingdom, St. Paul tells us we should act differently from those who do not have that understanding and who have not yet made that commitment. We should behave as though we are part of the kingdom that has not yet been revealed but which will be revealed in the future.
St. Paul’s advice is unequivocal. Apart from avoiding the obvious sins of idol worship and fornication, in the Letter to the Ephesians he exhorts us to conduct ourselves in a proper manner and for example, to refrain from any unwholesome talk only using words that help build up others.
We are very different from the people of the time of Jesus because we have been redeemed by his death and Resurrection. Every time we hear the gospel it is a challenge. It means we have to live according to God’s directions and therefore through his mercy, ultimately claim our place in the kingdom. Unlike earthly kingdoms where the people are either subjects or citizens, we are actually inheritors. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are royalty.
“He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the ash heap;
He seats them with princes,
With the princes of his people.”
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