There is a strand in American Christianity that is often called “me and Jesus” Christianity. To have Jesus, you don’t need the Church. You’ll most often find it in Protestantism, but it has also seeped its way into the Catholic Church. If you have ever heard anybody say that they love Jesus but hate the Church or that Christianity is a relationship rather than a religion, then you’ve probably encountered this kind of Christianity. It’s basically the idea that all we need is a personal relationship with Jesus, and anything that we can get only from the Church, such as the sacraments, the priesthood, or the magisterium, is optional.
However, if we look at the Gospels closely, we can see that this is actually a distortion of Jesus’ message. He didn’t preach a “lone ranger” faith that focused entirely on our own individual relationships with God to the exclusion of the wider community of believers. No, if we look at his message closely, we can see that it was actually all about community. Specifically, it was about the community that we call the Church, even though he didn’t often use that exact word. As a result, if we don’t leave any room for the Church in our spiritual lives, we are actually rejecting the message of the one we claim to love and follow.
The Kingdom of God
To begin, let’s look at how the Gospels summarize Jesus’ preaching. Matthew repeatedly says that he preached the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14), and Mark summarizes his preaching this way:
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.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Similarly, Luke tells us that Jesus preached “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43, 8:1), and the Greek verb he uses for “preach the good news” literally means “preach the Gospel.” As a result, Luke literally says that Jesus preached the Gospel of the kingdom of God. The one outlier is John, the fourth Gospel, which mentions the kingdom of God on only one occasion (John 3:3, 5). Towards the end of John, Jesus does talk about his “kingship” (John 18:36-37), but he does not explicitly connect this with the kingdom of God. Instead, in this Gospel, Jesus usually talks about “eternal life” (for example, John 4:14, 10:28, 17:3).
At first glance, this may seem like an irreconcilable difference, but it’s actually not. The two times in John when Jesus does use the phrase “kingdom of God” come only a few verses before he starts talking about eternal life for the first time (John 3:15), hinting that they may in fact be the same thing. Moreover, the Gospel of Matthew equates the kingdom of God with eternal life in the story about the rich young man. This man asks Jesus how to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16), and after he leaves because he can’t accept Jesus’ answer, Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The man wants to know how to gain eternal life, but he cannot do what is necessary to enter the kingdom of God, implying that the two are the same. More specifically, we can say that eternal life is the life that citizens of the kingdom possess. Consequently, Jesus’ message in all four Gospels is actually the same: he preached the kingdom of God and the eternal life that comes to us through that kingdom.
The Identity of the Kingdom
And what is the kingdom of God? It is the restoration of the kingdom of Israel from the Old Testament. Specifically, it is the restoration of the kingdom ruled over by King David (the same David who famously fought and killed the giant Goliath) and his descendants. God promised David that his dynasty would last forever (2 Samuel 7:16), but things didn’t quite work out that way. A few hundred years later, the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians, and the Davidic dynasty came to an end (2 Kings 24:1-4, 20; 25:8-21). Nevertheless, the prophets foretold a day when God would make good on his promise and raise up a new descendant of David to rule over Israel (for example, Jeremiah 33:14-15, 17, 20-21; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Hosea 3:4-5), and the New Testament tells us that this new Davidic king is Jesus (for example, Matthew 9:27, 15:22; Mark 10:47-48; Luke 1:31-33).
And if there is any doubt, this is confirmed for us by the Old Testament background to the phrase “kingdom of God.” That exact Hebrew phrase is never used, but we do find an equivalent one, “kingdom of the Lord.” It’s used in only two verses, but both of them use it to refer to the kingdom ruled over by David and his descendants (1 Chronicles 28:5, 2 Chronicles 13:8). As a result, it is clear that when Jesus, the new Davidic king, preached the kingdom of God, he was in fact preaching the restoration of the kingdom of David from the Old Testament.
The Coming of the Kingdom, the Church
So what does all this have to do with the Church? Simply put, the kingdom of God is the Church. Or, more specifically, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom” (CCC 567). See, when Jesus preached the kingdom, he said that it would come gradually. For example, he compared it to a mustard seed that starts out small but then grows into a large tree (Matthew 13:31-32) and to a bit of leaven that slowly permeates a whole batch of meal (Matthew 13:33). On another occasion, he compared the kingdom to a net that catches every kind of fish, both good and bad (Matthew 13:47-50), and he said that the good fish would be separated from the bad “at the close of the age” (Matthew 13:49), when he comes again in glory.
From all this, we can see that the kingdom comes to earth gradually. It started out small, and it will come in its fullness at Jesus’ second coming. This is why the Gospels sometimes speak of the kingdom as already present during Jesus’ ministry (for example, Matthew 12:28, Luke 17:20-21) and other times as a reality that is still to come (for example, Matthew 6:10, Mark 9:1). It began with him, but it was only a seed at that point. It grew throughout his ministry, and it will continue to grow until his second coming, when it will finally be here in its fullness. This is important because we don’t want to simply equate the Church and the kingdom as if they were two entirely identical. Rather, the Church is only “the seed and beginning” of the kingdom, not the kingdom in its fullness. Nevertheless, in a very real sense, the Church truly is the kingdom, so since Jesus’ message was about the kingdom of God, it is correct to say that it was in fact about the Church.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Now, this leaves us with an obvious question: how do we know that the kingdom of God is the Church? Is there any scriptural warrant for this identification? Yes, there is. Specifically, I want to look at two ways that we know this. First, Jesus equates them in the Gospel of Matthew:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)
Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” in this passage, but they mean the same thing. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tends to call it the “kingdom of heaven” in order to emphasize that the kingdom comes to earth from heaven, but it’s clear that the two phrases refer to the same kingdom. A few chapters later in Matthew, He uses them both synonymously (Matthew 19:23-24), so there’s no doubt about this.
With that red herring out of the way, we can get to the real heart of the matter here. First, Jesus says that he is going to build his Church on Peter, and then he promises to give Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Now, he doesn’t explicitly say that the Church is the kingdom, but that’s the obvious implication of what he does say. The most natural interpretation of Jesus’ words is that Peter’s two roles as the foundation of the Church and the bearer of the keys of the kingdom are related. He is the foundation of the Church precisely because he has the keys of the kingdom, implying that the Church is in fact the kingdom.
The Kingdom in Acts
For confirmation of this, we can turn to the Acts of the Apostles, the history of the nascent Church after Jesus ascended into heaven. During these early years, there was a big controversy over whether Gentile (non-Jewish) converts to Christianity had to follow the Jewish Law. To resolve the issue, a council was called in Jerusalem, and the Apostles and the leaders of the Church decided that Gentile Christians did not have to follow the Law (Acts 15:1-21). Now, Acts gives us a few reasons why the Church decided this, but for our purposes here we only need to look at one of them. They made their decision based in part on an Old Testament prophecy:
After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will set it up,
that the rest of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old. (Acts 15:16-18, quoting Amos 9:11-12)
If you read this passage carefully, you can see that it’s about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom (“the dwelling of David”), but the Apostles used it to come to a conclusion about the Church. They decided that since the restored kingdom would include Gentiles, the Church should not force Gentile converts to follow the Jewish Law (the assumption here seems to be that if Gentiles followed it, they would technically become Jewish, since it was the national law of the Jewish people). This implies very strongly that the restored kingdom of David, what Jesus called the kingdom of God, is in fact the Church. Granted, the text doesn’t make that equation explicitly, but that is the most natural way to understand the logic of the council’s decision. They used a prophecy about the kingdom to make a decision about the Church because the Church is the kingdom.
Not Just Me and Jesus
So what implications does this all have for “me and Jesus” Christianity? If Jesus’ message was all about the kingdom of God, and the Church is the kingdom, then Jesus’ preaching was in fact about the Church. Granted, he didn’t give us a blueprint for what exactly the Church would look like or how exactly it would function, but he did preach about its essence, the body of believers that would constitute it. Consequently, this means that if we reject the Church, we are in fact rejecting the core of Jesus’ message. If the Church has no place in our spiritual lives, we are rejecting the Gospel that he preached. Simply put, if we want to follow Jesus, we need the Church. We need to live as a community of faith that worships, believes, and performs acts of charity together. Otherwise, what we believe and live out isn’t authentic Christianity.