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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Mark Shea: Models of the Church: John and the Church of Contemplation

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This is Part 4 of Mark Shea’s series on Models of the Church

There’s a little joke about Peter and John running to the tomb.  John gets there first and says, “I beat you!”  Peter says, “Yeah, but who will ever know?”  And John replies, “Everyone will know!” followed by the verse in John’s gospel where he records the incident for all mankind and all future time.

It is a curious detail to John’s gospel and redolent of the sort of eyewitness memory that an old man brings to a story from his youth he has told many times.  It’s recorded because, well, it’s what happened.  But the way in which John (or more precisely, John’s disciples who are writing down the story for him) tells it includes peculiar details that invite the question, “Why does he tell it this way?”:

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“Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:3-9)

Mark Shea: Models of the Church

The first odd thing is that despite seeing the empty graveclothes, John the Contemplative does not go into the tomb.  Instead, he waits for Peter, the Church of Office, to enter in and assess the situation.  Then John enters the tomb, sees and believes, yet still more oddly, he tells us that his belief was not yet illuminated by Scripture (meaning the Old Testament).  Nor, for that matter, was Peter’s.  The dots between the Old Testament and the Resurrection have not yet been connected.  Rather, John appears to have directly intuited the reality of the Resurrection by faith in the words of Jesus himself (who had, after all, foretold it three times).

Interestingly, we are told nothing about what Peter thought in that moment, only John.  And John appears to not press his newfound faith in the Resurrection on Peter.  Rather, they go home.

Of course, Peter will soon come to the faith that John has already arrived at, but it is interesting that John appears to wait for Peter to do that.  This is an eminently Catholic way of doing contemplation.  Jesus tells us, “[E]very scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Likewise, Paul wisely counsels, “[T]est everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Th 5:21). John the Contemplative will later write: “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9).

The point is that the Contemplative is a sort of scout for the Church, seeing where the Tradition leads and the way in which the Mustard Seed is meant by God to grow, throw out branches and put down roots as the Church meets the challenges of history when she moves out into the world.  If Peter’s task is to make sure the roots are secure in the history of the Tradition, John’s task is to see that the blossoms and fruit of the Tradition flourish and grow.  Rather than skim over the surface of the story of Jesus Christ, the Church of Contemplation puts on scuba gear and dives down deep into the mystical ocean of the revelation.

These tasks are not opposites but complementary.  For the Church to be apostolic, it must look both back to the Tradition handed down to it, but also forward to the world where the Church is sent. This absolutely requires the help of the Spirit and the sometimes surprising and paradoxical ways in which he gives us insight into revelation.

This was, for instance, the great paradox of the Circumcision Controversy (Acts 15).  The Church of Contemplation came to see that Gentiles did not need to keep the ceremonial laws of Moses to enter the New Covenant precisely because Christ was the fulfillment of the law.

And that released the Church to fulfill its mission on a global scale, which is the task of the Church of Paul. Of which more next week.


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