Roughly a century ago a modernist scholar complained that Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God, but instead all we got was a lousy Church. He’s probably not the only person to have felt a bit disappointed, nor the only one to form the conviction that the Church is a tragic letdown, a mistake, and not something Jesus ever intended. One seldom looks round one’s local parish and is filled with the awestruck feeling, “Behold! The Kingdom!” It’s one of the things Uncle Screwtape rather enjoys banging away at, as he tells his nephew Wormwood:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of “Christians” in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real—though of course an unconscious—difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.
This odd tendency to mistake the merely pictorial for the spiritual is all over the place, I fear, in our current approach to the Faith. We imagine we are being spiritual, but really we have this vague notion of castles, round tables, and a sort of egalitarian co-op of shining saints and folk affirming one another in their okayness, all in union with a Jesus who is not so much “Lord” as “Wise and Strong Affirmer of our Basic Goodness”. Certainly, much of the American Catholic Church is afflicted with this vision, leading to a celebration of the liturgy which author Amy Welborn has puckishly described as the Rite of the Church of Aren’t We Fabulous.
You’ve probably had to endure it at some point: a “sacred meal” (and only that) where we gather around the Table to celebrate our Us-ness because it’s all about Us. We come to share our story, not humble ourselves before the gospel. We come to break the bread, not the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ fully present in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. We come to know our rising from the dead, without the nasty business of taking up crosses. We talk about the “reign of God” and assure ourselves that the crucifixion of Jesus was a tragic accident, not part of the plan of God at all. Such a liturgy is a time where we come to discover yet again that we are superior to all previous generations (as, for instance, in a homily I once endured in which the priest told us that Jesus had to “learn to overcome his racism” by discovering that Syro-Phoenician women were people and not “dogs” (Mark 7:24-30)). Along with this celebration of our superior Us-ness, we banish all those dark pre-Vatican II notions of sin, humility, and sacrifice (except for the sake of self-empowerment) and assert our “dignity” (a word which sounds an awful lot like “pride” in the mouths of suburban Americans)
In short, we in the American Church start by talking about the “kingdom” but somehow quickly end by talking about the People’s Democratic Republic of Heaven, free of odious and (this must be said with a sneer) “medieval” notions of hierarchy, authority, and so forth.
Given that modern chatter about of the “kingdom” tends to do this so often, while Jesus’ conception of the kingdom seems (in stark contrast) to have something to do with founding rather than fleeing from the Church, my suggestion for repairing the increasingly stark disconnect between AmChurch Cath Lite and the actual Church (and Kingdom) is to return to the language of Jesus and, in particular, to what words like “kingdom” actually mean in the minds of Jesus and his apostles. When we do that, we discover that before Jesus and his apostles look forward to the coming of the Kingdom they have their minds rooted in the past and, in particular, on one King. His name is not Arthur (who lies centuries in their future) but David and it is his kingly line that is at the root of the entire Jewish conception of the Messiah.
For the Messiah is no one and nothing other than the Son of David. The entire Jewish conception of the Messiah rests on the conviction that God will make good on a promise given to David after he was taken as king of the people of Israel by popular acclaim and began to reign in Jerusalem. The language of that popular acclamation was, as we shall see, significant. But even more significant is the nature of the covenant God makes with David after the king seeks counsel from the prophet Nathan on whether he should build a “house” or temple for the Lord. Nathan replies to him with this astonishing prophecy:
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:5-16).
The punning triple promise that God will build David a “house” (i.e. a dynasty), that David’s son “shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” is the source of the entire messianic concept in the Jewish mind. The worldly failure of the House of David serves, paradoxically, only to sharpen the expectation that the promise to David cannot fail. Even though, politically, the Davidic line loses the political throne even as the Temple is destroyed, Judah’s hope in the promise to David only grows.
This would seem to be hugely delusional by the first century AD. After all, the Jews are, by the time of Christ, ruled over not by a Jewish king but by an Idumaean named Herod and then (worse still) by a Roman named Pilate, In a similar vein of apparently mocking failure by the muses of History, Ezekiel had prophesied a rebuilt Temple as a sign of a restored covenant, yet Herod’s temple was no more the work of a son of David than the Nashville, Tennessee Parthenon was the work of ancient Greeks. None of the prophetic promises seemed to be panning out at all. Prophecy appeared to be a joke.
All this led popular Judaism to get some things right and some things disastrously wrong. In the “getting it right” department is pre-Christian Judaism’s valiant will to retain the Messianic idea at all. There’s a reason you haven’t met any Amorites, Perrizites, Sumerians, or Hittites. They’re gone. They had no vision and they perished. But the Jews, by divine Providence and an iron will, stuck to their hope in the words of the prophets and believed that Messiah would come. For this, we are forever in their debt.
The problem is that when he came, the kingdom he proclaimed was not what they expected. No conquering king to beat up the Gentiles and kick them out of the Holy Land. Not much in the way of hamstrung horses or collections of large numbers of foreskins from dead opponents as David had done. The brave band of followers turned out to be fishermen, tax collectors and whores, not David’s Mighty Men. Quite un-Davidic—or so it seemed. To be sure, he claimed, both explicitly and implicitly to be the King of Israel. He even rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as Solomon had done a thousand years (1 Kings 1:43-44) before when he laid claim to the Davidic throne (a gesture not lost on any of his countrymen), which is why, hopes high, they shouted “Hosanna!” They thought the Revolution and the New Davidic Kingdom would be any minute now. They were absolutely right—and horribly wrong.
Just how right and wrong was soon apparent. The son of David started doing weird stuff: identifying himself with a mysterious “Bridegroom” as well as with some King who would come at the end of time to judge us on our treatment of “the least of these” (Matthew 25). He asked unsettling questions about Psalm 110 (universally regarded by his contemporaries as both Davidic in origin and Messianic in nature) and pointed out that David called the son of David “Lord” (Matthew 22:41-45). He ticked off the power elites who had gotten pretty cozy with the Army of the Occupation and who didn’t want to rock the boat with miracle stories about his raising the dead (Matthew 23; John 11:45-53). And when it came to the Temple?: talk about disrespect for religious decorum! Would David have ever cleared out the moneychangers and treated such a venerable national institution with such rabble-rousing fury? (Matthew 21:12).
Clearly, said Top People, the man was a pretender to the throne we can do without and clearly he had said and done enough to hang himself. His claims to the kingship were well-known enough by the time he was brought to trial that both Pilate and the Sanhedrin could make them the basis for the prosecution. Yes, mixed in with the Son of David stuff was other weird business about destroying the temple and raising it in three days (John 2:19). (They weren’t sure what that meant but they tossed it into the indictment and brought forward a few massaged witnesses ready to spin his words in the hope that some sort of terrorism charge would stick. (Mark 14:57-59)) And he did exude a disquieting uncanniness when he warned of returning on clouds of glory and took the Name “I AM” to himself (Mark 14:61-62) (which was the real crime as far as the Sanhedrin was concerned). But with practiced calm, his accusers stuck with the claim of kingship since that’s what Rome would care about.
Of course, that eerie “I AM” claim almost torpedoed the whole project when the superstitious Pilate, spooked by his wife’s dream (Matthew 27:19), remembered old myths of gods who came to earth in disguise and vented their wrath on the puny mortals who mistreated them. He asked, “Where are you from?” and blustered, “Don’t you realize I have the power to release you or have you crucified?” (John 19:9-10). But the man with the crown of thorns seemed in no danger of erupting in Olympian fury and eventually (with a bit of velvety pressure warning that if Pilate let this guy claiming to be “Christ, a king” go, he was “no friend of Caesar’s” (John 19:12)) the Great Man of Rome plucked up the guts to have his horse-whipped prisoner traded off for some two-bit hood named Barabbas and disposed of with the other two pieces of trash awaiting execution in the Tower of Antonia.
The rest we know, except that we don’t know it, because we don’t think of what happened as the apostles and Jesus did. Oh sure, we acknowledge the story of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension as truth. But sooner or later, the story ends, our eyes refocus, and we look around at our adult Sunday school class there in the air-conditioned room with the fluorescent lights and the little table with coffee and Oreos on it and we think, “So it was all leading up to this and the Church social with the fruit salad we had last night?” In short, we think of the Church as a sort of afterthought to the whole drama of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. A mere “human institution” cooked up by “mere men” who basically needed something to kill the time while they waited around for Jesus to come back.
But Jesus doesn’t. He thinks of the Church as the whole point of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The Church isn’t something the apostles came up with in order to keep busy once Jesus was gone. The Church is, in fullness, what the kingdom of David was in foreshadow. The promise of the law and the prophets—including the prophet called David—has been fulfilled, as Jesus himself told the disciples on the Emmaus Road.
So, for instance, we discover that the kingdom is nuptial, just as the Davidic kingdom was. The Davidic kingdom is inaugurated with language that comes from the most primal union in the history of the human race:
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. (2 Samuel 1:1)
This idea of the king as a sort of Adam to Israel’s Eve is recapitulated by Jesus’ when he inaugurates his public ministry at, where else?: a wedding. The sign he gives at that feast is Eucharistic: changing water into wine in anticipation of the great Eucharistic feast, which is itself nuptial in that it foreshadows the “marriage feast of the Lamb” at the consummation of all things. And in case, we still don’t connect the dots, the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist, spell it out for us on the next page when he tells us that Jesus is the Bridegroom in the great Messianic wedding (John 3). That wedding is with none other than the Church, who is the true Bride of Christ. That wedding is consummated when the side of the second Adam is pierced on the cross and from his side come blood and water (John 19:34). John doesn’t tell us this because he thought we’d be interested in the medical details of pericardial rupture. He tells us this because this is the moment at which the sacrament of baptism is born and the Church, the bride of the second Adam is born again in “the Spirit, the water and the blood” (1 John 5:6-8).
In the same way, Jesus fulfills the Davidic promise of a King as the Warrior who defends Israel. However, he does so not by laying down his life in battle for mere plots of land and political power, but for the most contested property in the universe: the human heart. In Isaiah 53, we find the “servant of the Lord” (another title for the Messiah or son of David) offering his life in perfection, not merely for the political triumph of his people, but for their complete redemption from sin and death.
And in Psalm 110, we likewise find Jesus completely fulfilling the promise made to the son of David that he would be a priest forever according to the line of Melchizedek, sharing in a priesthood more ancient and profound that that of the Levitical priesthood—a priesthood which is, again, ordered toward the Eucharist and the eternal outpouring of his life for the all the people.
In short, again and again, the understanding of the kingdom is rooted in the Davidic kingdom before it looks forward to the final coming of the King at the end of time. That’s why the Church is not a distraction or declension from the kingdom, but the concrete expression of the Eucharistic Davidic kingdom on earth. Now. Today. It is not, of course, the final fulfillment of that kingdom promise. That will not happen until the Last Day, when the King returns and sin, hell and death are finally and completely defeated. But neither is it something other than or opposite from the Davidic kingdom Jesus preached whenever he spoke of the kingdom of God. It is the now and not yet kingdom. And because it is, it is present in the fully restored Davidic temple, made not by hands but from living stones built together into a spiritual house—the house of the Son of King David. (1 Peter 2:1-10). So the kingdom and the Church are inseparably fused in the minds of Jesus and the apostles, for where the Church is, there is the Eucharistic King, and where the King is, there is the kingdom already present and yet still to come.
That is why, as we shall see over the next couple of weeks, we pray for the kingdom to come and God’s will to be done “on earth, as it is in heaven”.