Back in the 1st century, there was man named Ignatius, who lived in Antioch. Ignatius had the good fortune of meeting a man named John, who was also known as the Blessed Disciple, the writer of the Gospel according to John, the epistles and the book of Revelation. Ignatius was converted to the Faith by way of John, who had a habit of doing such things, and the rock solid faith seen in John was also seen in Ignatius. Ignatius was so respected in Antioch that both Peter and Paul instructed that he should be bishop of that city. He didn’t let the Apostles down; Ignatius held the Church in Antioch together under Roman persecution and helped establish the Church as we know it, writing especially about the importance of bishops as the heirs of the Apostles. Ignatius wrote that “Wheresoever the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” That was the first time anyone wrote down the words catholic and church together.
Ignatius was on to something, because that’s still what makes up the human portion of the Catholic Church. Where there’s a bishop, there’s the Church. The people of God gather around a bishop, and Christ is there as sure as anyone else is. In Ignatius’ time, a time when a Christian was more likely to die on a cross than hang one around their neck, this definition of the Church was vitally important. That definition might seem less important now that the church seems everywhere – you can’t swing a cat around your head without hitting a church in Bordentown – but despite all that, Ignatius’ definition still holds. Wherever we Christians are, there is the Church, maybe not in her entirety, but certainly in her fullness.
Jesus give us a hint of this in the parables we just heard. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, which much like the Church, shows up in many and diverse ways. Much like the Church, the Kingdom of God is both huge, almost unthinkably powerful, and at the same time the Kingdom can be graspable, even personal. And most of all, the Kingdom of God has the power to surprise us and to keep surprising us.
If we learn anything from the parables we just heard, it’s that the Kingdom of God is, by nature, not given to flashiness. That might be obvious, considering that the Ruler of that Kingdom thought it a good idea to have His only Son born in a stable out in the boondocks, but that same Son seemed perfectly comfortable with His Kingdom’s natural humility. It’s that humility that keeps us guessing, that makes the Kingdom of God more like a mustard seed or hidden treasure than like Paris Hilton or the Las Vegas strip. Jesus talks about the Kingdom like it’s something you would stumble upon on the way to something else rather than something you could point out from the window of an airplane. The Kingdom of God represents the most powerful force known, the only force that can change the world, change even our hearts, but it’s also the only Kingdom that you could miss if you’re not looking.
“All of this is profoundly surprising. We are so accustomed to these images in Jesus’ parables that they typically don’t strike us as absurd or paradoxical. But they are. Think of it: the kingdom is a seed scarcely visible to the naked eye and which disappears completely in dirt. The kingdom is yeast which a woman kneads into dough.”1 The Kingdom is a treasure found buried in a field. Jesus describes His own Kingdom in such strange terms; the lack of triumphalism is astounding. What king goes on and on about how hidden and tiny his kingdom is? Seeds and yeast: “It takes 750 mustard seeds to equal one gram. Drop one of those little wisps into the dirt and you won’t even be able to see it. The same is true of yeast in dough: once it’s mixed into the water, flour, and oil, the yeast disappears—you could not separate it back out again (much less locate it) if you tried.”2 And yet, mustard plants grow large and almost unwieldy; bread isn’t really bread without the yeast.
Likewise the Church. The Church is the Kingdom of God visible here on Earth, so just like the Kingdom the Church can be both huge and wispy, both very powerful and powerfully humble. St. Ignatius (I hope his friends called him Iggy) really was on to something: the most powerful force for good on this earth is two or three Christians, two or three of us, who get together, say “Jesus is Lord,” and then decide that everyone needs to know that. That’s the Church, maybe not in her entirety but certainly in her fullness; that’s us, humbly and powerfully working for the Kingdom of God.
1. Scott Hoezee, This Week