JFK to Milan…
Those of you who are Facebook friends already have a hint of what I am about to write so it will not be fresh news but I want to provide a little more detail. This may be a little long but when it comes to evangelism there may be something instructive.
As I waited for my Delta flight I took a seat in waiting area 37. As I arrived I noticed seven priests. I couldn’t help but notice that I might be flying with a rather large group of Catholics. I always know where they are headed. Even though our plane lands in Milan they will be on the first train to Rome.
Dying to find out, I asked the girl seated next to me, “Are you traveling with this group?” She was anxious to answer so in an unmistakable Irish accent she explained that she wasn’t actually from New York but lives in Jacksonville, Florida and works for Mayo Clinic but heard about the trip and asked to join. They were going to Rome for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II. “Millions of faithful will be there!” I was tempted but did not challenge the notion of “Canonization of Saints.”
The conversation further ensued by my asking how long she had been in America and so forth. I took the conversation around to my many trips to Italy and Rome and how less than 8% of Rome attend mass on a regular basis. She was shocked by this fact so I went on to explain that Italy like most of Europe is Catholic in name only but when asked, most are anti-theistic. This led to her optimism how Pope Francis is changing all of this. Catholics are more enthusiastic than ever.
Frankly, it would be great if a Pope (any Pope) would step up to Saint Peter’s chair and call a spade a spade. Though healthy changes have taken place and I have to give credit where credit is due, not one Italian Catholic in a thousand could clearly explain the gospel and virtually none that I have met have any confidence of their own salvation. The truth is, the vast majority of those under forty are totally secularized and many are in fact, anti-theistic and anti-Vatican. They view the church as repressive and out of touch with reality.
I tried to be as positive and commending as possible but still hold to the Apostle’s doctrine and this would have worked until she trotted the old dog that St. Peter was the first Pope and Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom. She attempted to prove her point by quoting scripture but I have been to this passage at least one hundred times so she was decidedly outmatched both by exegesis, logic and church history. Of course. like Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons sensible explanations matter little to those who have a misplaced security. The Imam, Elder, Bishop, Pope or the priest said it so it has to be true. I can’t afford to ask any questions and have to trust the system. She was clearly unnerved when I explained that the Rock was not Peter but rather revelation as the context grammatically demonstrates. Being conciliatory, I did point out that Peter did have the keys to the kingdom in the sense that unlocked the gospel in “Jerusalem, Judea and the utter most parts of the earth” but he was never the head of the church and there was hint of a Bishop of Rome or Apostolic succession until well after Constantine in the fourth century.
She went on to explain how she has a Presbyterian friend who had been seminary trained, ordained and a pastor but in his studies he became a Roman Catholic. This seemed to be her trump card until I told her the reverse is true a hundred times over. I pointed out that we mean something totally different when we talk about conversion or salvation. It is clear to me that most Catholics that I meet have been baptized, catechized and sacramentalized but they have not been evangelized. Oh, poor Catherine had gone down the wrong street and panic swept over her face as I pointed out that conversion in the Catholic context is baptism or restoration to the church. We don’t preach our church or our baptism. We preach Christ and him crucified. All people must have a supernatural experience with the Holy Spirit that comes through faith (trusting Jesus alone) and repentance. This is called being born again.
The conversation was amicable enough but it became obvious that almost every term needed to be defined before we could have a meaningful conversation.
This is my concern. I am happy to see that there is a new Pope who refers to the Bible – one who insists on change and being closer to what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus. Yet, I caution many evangelicals to take a wait and see attitude. I promote the idea of working with all who claim the name of Jesus and his finished substitutionary work on the cross regardless of the denominational family they are identified with. I state again that salvation is no more dependent upon association with a Protestant or evangelical denomination anymore than with a Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Salvation is in Jesus alone, plus nothing.
The popularity of Pope Francis in Italy is beginning to cause some evangelicals to think of compromising their Apostolic convictions. The principle question that should be asked by everyone is this, “What has changed in two-thousand years and why were the Apostles martyred?” The fact is as Paul said compromise is not possible and lost his head because of his position. In Galatians 5:11, Paul writes, “And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.”
If the Apostle’s, martyrs and non-conformists would have just agreed with the Sanhedrin, Caesar or the Roman Church, they wouldn’t have been slaughtered into the millions. Did they misunderstand the unique doctrine of Christ and justification by faith ALONE and senselessly sacrifice themselves for nothing? I urge my Bible Christian friends everywhere to always hold the scriptures in high regard. Consider that conditions in the first century were little different than they are today. The price for loyalty will cost the same. “Buy the truth and sell it not.”
As we came to the end of the flight, one of the Catholic pilgrims was down on all fours in the aisle. It was apparent that she had lost something and desperate to find it. Almost immediately she holds up an earring and announced with apparent awe and these words, “That Saint Anthony really works fast!” For me, this was mind boggling and came close to discrediting every intelligent thing I had been staying to Nathan, my seat mate regarding a rational faith. His story is next and much shorter, I promise.