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peter-and-john-burnandOur resident humourist. Bosco, seems to think that reading the Bible is a bit of a waste of time – after all, if you are ‘saved’ what more do you need?  Why, for example, bother to reflect on what St John’s Gospel has to say about Peter and John? The answer lies in Bosco’s own reflection. From what we can tell of it, the Johannine community, rather like Bosco and others here, put a great deal of weight on personal revelation and the in-dwelling of the Spirit. That was fine until different members of the Community disagreed on something as fundamental as whether Jesus was God Incarnate: who was right?  Well, if both sides claimed the Spirit as the sanction for their belief, then there was no way of answering the question; indeed, such a division of opinion threw doubt on the whole idea that being inspired by the Spirit was enough. How could that be so when the Spirit seemed to be telling believers something different?

No less a figure than St John was telling his church that Jesus was the Word Incarnate, that Christ had come in the flesh; but others denied that, as we see in John’s second epistle. Indeed, we see from the third epistle that a local elder, Diotrephes, was denying John himself, and those who adhered to him, fellowship. Here was a fellow who was full of himself and so clear he was guided that he denied even one of the Apostles; how ‘Spirit-filled’ was that?  How often in the history of Christianity have we seen the same phenomenon? And how should it not be so? If you are convinced you are filled with, and guided by, the Holy Spirit, the natural tendency of man to stubborn pride is increased; no doubt Diotrephes thought he was guided by the Spirit; so did St John.

It was precisely that dilemma, or so I have tried to suggest from my reading of St John’s Gospel, which makes it difficult to maintain the view of those like Bultmann who see in John and Peter a rivalry. They seem to me to suggest two different approaches in the early Church, whose tendences we see to this day; but they needed each other. Those members of the Johannine community who followed the Apostle never denied their inspiration by the Spirit, but they sought to prove their case by showing that what they believed and practised was authenticated by the Petrine/Apostolic community, whose greater emphasis on order and church discipline may have looked duller, but provided a greater defence against fracturing and schism – provided it was not taken to the point of ossification.

These are the dangers which have haunted the Church from its origins. It is all fine and wonderful to be filled by the Spirit, but if what we think we are told by that inspiration is not in line with what the Church holds, we have two choices: one is to rein in our own tendencies; the other is to dismiss the Church as in some way having fallen away, despite the clear statement of Jesus that it would never be so. There is, I sometimes think, nothing more dangerous to the soul than the belief that what inspires me is right and that means that I can dismiss the billions of Christians who have lived as being, in some way, less guided than I am.

At one end lies the sort of licentiousness which Paul found in Corinth and the errors he found in Galatia; at the other lies the sort of ossification which insists that unless a fellow wears a special costume from a previous age and says a certain set of words in a dead language in a certain way, Christ will not visit us. Both are wrong. Our Faith works best in society, and for us, when Peter and John work together; they needed each other, and their spiritual descendants do to this day.