The Discernible Features of the Kingdom of God...in Us
Last week in Entering the Kingdom of God: What Does this Mean?, I reviewed the relevant New Testament texts to suggest an answer to my title question. “Put simply,” I concluded, “entering the Kingdom of God means receiving the Holy Spirit.” And then I asked: What difference does this make? What difference ought it to make? Today I will attempt to answer these questions.
One way to get at this is to examine those texts which talk about the Kingdom of God as something available, even near, but not yet experienced. For example, in describing the arrangements leading to Our Lord’s burial, both Mark (15:43) and Luke (23:51) describe Joseph of Arimathea as one who “was looking for the kingdom of God”. Joseph was a respected Jewish leader, and in this context the meaning is surely that he both recognized the self-serving motivations of most of his fellows and preferred himself to remain open to the truth of Our Lord’s claims, genuinely looking for the Messiah without concern for his own position.
As Luke points out, he “had not consented to their purpose and deed.” Clearly, this question of our interior disposition is critical.
Another instance occurrs in a discussion between Our Lord and a group of Jewish scholars. This particular episode is all the more striking because He so often had to rebuke the scribes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees for their duplicity. Frequently we see these “intellectuals” posing questions with the evil intention of putting Jesus in an impossible situation, so that He would stumble in some obvious way. The incident recorded in the twelfth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel is a good case in point, but with a wholesome twist.
After Our Lord had foiled his enemies through His usual superb answers, one particular scribe was actually favorably impressed. He did not gnash his teeth in frustration because Our Lord had escaped their traps. Instead, he came forward to ask a question that frequently troubled serious Jews because of the honor in which they held all the individual commandments of the Law: “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Our Lord answered, as he always did, that we are to love God above all things, with all our soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:29-31). The scribe, with perhaps just a touch of condescension based on his position as a teacher in Israel, proclaimed that Our Lord had spoken truly. But he was clearly uplifted by Our Lord’s answer. For His part, Jesus, seeing that the scribe’s response was wise, told him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34). We see here again the refusal to adopt a self-serving sneer, which is also a willingness to recognize Our Lord’s goodness. This scribe exhibits a genuine openness to God or, in broader terms, an openness to truth.
The Kingdom of God Itself
If entering the Kingdom of God means receiving the Holy Spirit, then the Kingdom of God must be all that is animated, sanctified and guided by the Holy Spirit—especially all persons. This would include the Persons of the Trinity, of course, who are joined in a unity of love by the action of the Holy Spirit, but it would also include all the good angels, who enjoy the Presence of God and are now irrevocably open to His will—and also such men and women as have permitted themselves to be similarly animated by the Holy Spirit. (These latter, I suppose, are to be regarded as members of the Kingdom of God in potentia before the coming of Christ.)
Our Lord hinted at the Kingdom’s nearness as an opportunity for membership in the instructions he gave the disciples when sending them out to preach:
Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” [Lk 10:9-11]
This nearness is clearly either a wonderful gift or a staggering loss. People who are looking for the Kingdom of God—those, in other words, who are interiorly open to it—will have an opportunity to experience its nearness and enter into it when it is preached to them in Christ. But others will be near to it only to be excluded by their own hostility or lack of interest.
The New Testament texts also reveal that this nearness of the Kingdom has a chronological aspect. It is only through Our Lord’s death and resurrection that we can be justified in God’s sight, so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Clearly, then, Our Lord’s contemporaries (unlike men and women of our age) were very near the Kingdom in that its saving power was to be opened to them very soon. If so, it must now be nearer still.
We see later (especially in Acts and the epistles) that each person is initiated into the Kingdom, at least ordinarily, through the sacramental ministry of the Church, most notably baptism. To St. Paul, being joined to Christ and being joined to the Church are identical. Baptism is strongly associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, the astonishing visible results of baptism even become a convincing argument for formally extending the Kingdom to the Gentiles for, when the early Gentiles were baptized, they too manifested the wonderful works of the Spirit.
That sacramental baptism is not the sole possible method, however, is demonstrated by how the apostles themselves received the Spirit on Pentecost, and how some of the very first Gentitles received manifestations of the Spirit before baptism, when they heard and accepted the Word of God—a convincing demonstration to Peter that he was correct in extending the Kingdom to the Gentiles, and that he must not refrain from baptizing them (cf. Acts chapters 10-11).
In any case, those who are not interiorly open to the Kingdom, including those who reject the Gospel when it is proclaimed to them, fail to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. Our Lord wants them to be told that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near to them, yet they failed to desire it and refused to enter. They could have joined the Trinity, the angels, and all the saints (a word which, in the early days, sometimes signified the entire community of the baptized). But in an echo of Our Lord’s lament over Jerusalem, they “would not” (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34).
The Difference It Makes
No person has ever failed to receive God’s love, and with it some sort of Divine assistance. Even apart from the Christian dispensation, we are created with a yearning for God and we are given some ability to open ourselves to God as to our proper end. St. Paul talks about this openness among those gentiles who respond properly to God, seeking to know and obey Him through their reading of nature and the natural law.
We can, of course, refuse this engraced openness. In that case, we close in upon ourselves. But that openness is actually ordered to fulfillment in the Kingdom of God, and that fulfillment comes through Jesus Christ, whose redemptive sacrifice has made it possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit with a special fullness. Indeed, the Trinity itself actually takes up a kind of residence in our souls. The first mark of entering the Kingdom of God, then, is a rootedness in Christ, a confidence and conviction that He is, as He said, the way, the truth and the life. And with this comes an ongoing reordering of both our perceptions and our passions.
It seems almost dull to suggest that the discernible manifestations of this reordering are summarized in what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit, typically listed as charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, mildness, faith, modesty, self-control and chastity. I use the term “dull”, because readers may think a discussion lacks depth if all it does is reel off a schoolboy’s list of attributes traditionally compiled from Scripture, and normally committed to memory with little understanding. Thus does familiarity too often breed contempt. To memorize the list is not the same as growing into the possession of these situationally visible marks of a fruitful Christian life.
Depending on the nature of our surrounding culture, one or more of these fruits will undoubtedly make us appear very different from the majority of men and women. This is so true that it would be sufficient to close this essay with the advice to take these fruits seriously, to examine their presence in our own lives and the lives of those we may be prone to admire or despise, to nurture them, and to use them as an indicator of spiritual progress. They are, in terms of personal characteristics, the difference that the Kingdom of God makes.
Of all these fruits, perhaps the first practical result of entering the Kingdom is a new-found joyful serenity, probably best described as inner peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” says Jesus Christ. “Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). It can be no coincidence that in the very sentence preceding this one, Our Lord referred to “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”.
The Gifts of the Spirit
But I would rather emphasize the gifts that produce these fruits, for I think they encourage us to go deeper. Baptism bestows the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which are actually the motives, orientations, and actions of God Himself in our souls. We call them supernatural virtues because we do not merely believe in God, but we believe by means of God. The same is true of how we hope. And of course when the baptized love God, they love with God’s own love. To put this another way, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
This is why the differences that are manifested (the fruits) as we enter ever more deeply into the Kingdom of God actually depend on our continual growth in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If we also ask what difference entering the Kingdom of God ought to make, we can answer this way: If we perceive we are not growing in these gifts (either through careful reflection or an obvious paucity of fruits), then we need to reconsider the progress we may think we are making in the spiritual life.
Again, this progress entails a radical reordering of our perceptions and of our passions, a reordering always conspicuously absent in the worldly. What this boils down to is a constant growth in seeing reality as God Himself sees and responding to reality as God Himself responds, which is precisely what worldly souls consistently fail to do. This is why the rejection of self-serving motives in favor of seeking God and holding ourselves open to Him is what it means to be “looking for the Kingdom of God.” Desiring to escape all the self-limiting traps of the world, the flesh and the devil is what it means to be willing to enter the Kingdom when it comes “near”. Only then can the Holy Spirit bestow His gifts. Among these, once again drawn from Scripture and slapped into a schoolboy’s list (where they run the danger of becoming mere words), we include His transcendent wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
Pope Francis is currently offering a series of catecheses on these gifts of the Holy Spirit (see my initial comments in I can see clearly now). The series is not yet complete, but the Pope has already reminded us that possessing the gift of wisdom “is to see the world, to see situations, circumstances, problems, everything through God’s eyes.” In the same way, the gift of understanding “is a grace…which awakens in a Christian the ability to go beyond the outward appearance of reality and to probe the depths of the thoughts of God and his plan of salvation.” By the gift of counsel, “it is God himself, through his spirit, who enlightens our heart so as to make us understand the right way to speak and to behave and the way to follow.” It is through the gift of fortitude that “the Holy Spirit liberates...our heart, he frees it from sluggishness, from uncertainty and from all the fears that can hinder it, so that Our Lord’s Word may be put into practice authentically and with joy.” And the gift of knowledge “allows us to grasp, through Creation, the greatness and love of God and His profound relationship with every creature.”
Pope Francis has yet to speak on piety and the fear of the Lord (having failed to alter his schedule to meet my deadline). But piety disposes us to render to God the worship and service He deserves (not as an onerous duty but through a warm and properly ordered filial affection). And fear of the Lord moves us both to avoid offending God and to trust that he will enable us to do so. It serves as a kind of practical confirmation of the theological virtue of hope, which arises not from any servile fear but because we recognize deep in our hearts who we are and who God is.
The difference made by entering the Kingdom of God, then, is the sum of the innumerable differences in how we see and respond to reality as a result of our growth in the supernatural virtues and all these gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are nourished pre-eminently by the sacraments of the Church and blossom through frequent prayer. They are cultivated in the application of our own serious attention and effort, including regular reflection before God on how we speak and act, yes, and perhaps especially on how we think and even how we perceive.
Growth in these gifts makes all the difference in the world. Through them we join ourselves ever more firmly to all those who form part of the Kingdom of God, manifesting that Kingdom ever more completely until the time when it is made perfect by Christ in the new creation.
St. John captures the starkness of this difference: “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:15-16).
But though it may be a stylistic error to end with a much longer quotation, I well know that the most fitting conclusion to this inquiry comes from St. Peter:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.
Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. [2 Pet 1:2-11]
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!