After Crossing the Tiber
By Chris Castaldo
Usually, when I describe my life, I do so by comparing myself to Mr. Magoo. You remember Magoo: thick bifocals walking through town on the verge of some catastrophe. A piano falls from a window and misses him by an inch. In each instance, Magoo is led by a seemingly transcendent force which guides him to safety. This metaphor depicts my life of faith. Any positive steps that I have taken are very much on account of God’s kindness and despite my natural ability; of this I am sure.
Relationship with God
During summers when I was home from Bible College, I worked as a chauffeur. The position was ideal for two reasons. The customers whom I drove from Manhattan to the Hamptons tended to be interesting conversation partners, and the long hours of waiting outside opera halls and stadiums provided time to study Greek grammar. It was a dream job.
There was one client I shall never forget even though I can’t remember his name. Somehow we got on the topic of religion when he expressed his frustration with “those irritating Born Again Christians.” Since he obviously assumed that I was a fellow Catholic (probably on account of my Italian last name), I decided to keep my cards close to my chest until he was finished venting.
His biggest beef concerned the “chummy chummy” way that Evangelicals approach God. If I may paraphrase, his tirade went something like this:
Protestants think that they possess authority like the Pope. Take for instance my cousin; he belongs to a Born Again church which always talks about a “personal relationship” with Christ. He refers to Jesus as his “friend,” and calls the Lord by his first name (“Jesus” as opposed to his last name “Christ”). I want to sit my cousin down to watch On the Waterfront to see what a holy person really looks like. Priests are the only ones who deserve to call God “friend.”
I resisted the temptation to point out that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but rather his messianic title; but I couldn’t ignore his dogmatic moratorium against the language of “friend.” As innocently as possible, I asked, “How do you explain the fact that Jesus uses the term ‘friend’ three separate times in John 15 to describe his followers? Or how do you explain God calling Abraham his ‘friend’ simply because Abe believed in God’s promise?”
My Catholic passenger paused and then asked, “Did you say you were a Catholic?”
Direct Access to God
An important lesson from my chauffeur experience concerns the direct access to God’s presence that we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Having died to ourselves and being raised anew in Christ, we no longer depend upon clerical mediators to clear the hurdle of sin. God has created a full and final way for us to enter with confidence into his throne room. Because I am a little slow and thick-headed, it took several experiences before this notion sunk in. In this vein, a particularly poignant lesson came to me in Rome, Italy following a World Cup soccer game.
Few things embody Italian exuberance more than life in a piazza after a soccer victory. The collective elation borders on rioting (with body-armored police actually standing in the wings). The appearance of a civilized nation is abandoned as flags, fireworks, and flares are elevated above swarming crowds. A volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius is mild by comparison.
In the summer of 2006, I enjoyed one such celebration when the Italian soccer team defeated Germany in double overtime during the closing moments of the semi-final World Cup game. After the blazing soccer ball reached the back of the German net, apartments throughout Italy exploded with cheer. The final goal was replayed several times along with Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot.” With his three climactic “vinceros” at the end of the aria (translated “I shall win”), the ball rose, arched, and landed sweetly and safely in the corner of the net. The subsequent unleashing of euphoria defied description. Waving, cheering, and chanting resounded throughout the streets and into the cobblestone piazzas. The central fountain of the Piazza Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers) became a stage on which the most clamorous stood and chanted, “C’í non salta un Tedesco è!” – He who does not jump is a German! Soon everyone in the piazza was laughing, jumping, and singing.
As the evening festivity continued, the terraces around the piazza filled with spectators. From one such window emerged an elderly gentleman in his undershirt, enjoying a smoke. A few young men noticed the resemblance of this fellow to the late Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. They shouted, “Look up, look up” and began calling to the second story window, “Il Duce, Il Duce” (Mussolini’s nickname translated “the Leader”). Soon others were allured by this phenomenon. The old man played the part with delight. Initially, I thought he was a professional actor since he performed so well; then I realized he was simply Italian. Others quickly joined in and soon the entire piazza was looking to the same window where the old man with the prominent hooked nose and protruding chin enjoyed his moment of fame. The crowd continued to chant, “Duce, Duce, Duce!” as the Benito look-alike waved and blew kisses to his adoring fans.
Among the various lessons I learned in the Roman piazza is the importance of having a leader. God has created us to follow him; men and women cannot function otherwise. However, from the Greek philosopher Protagoras to the blue-eyed Sinatra of Hoboken, man has measured meaning by himself and has sought to live his own way.
Thankfully, according to the New Covenant, Christians have a leader who makes himself intimately accessible. He doesn’t look down upon us from a window, distant and aloof. He is the God who came down and lived among us, and still lives among us by his Spirit. So close is this fellowship that the Spirit abides in our hearts (John 15:4; Rom 5:5), and so sure that Jesus says “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
After eight wonderful years as Pastor of Outreach at College Church in Wheaton, I now have the privilege of serving as Director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Our vision is to train evangelicals to help the “partially evangelized” become fully devoted Christ followers. The partially-evangelized refers to men and women who have had exposure to the Christian tradition, but for whom new life in Christ, the authority of Scripture, and outreach is peripheral to their belief and/or practice.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, there are a total of 132,060,000 Americans who identify with the Mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Sociologists of religion tell us that three out of every four of these are partially evangelized, thus leaving over 99,000,000 such people in the United States. Our mission is to train evangelicals from all kinds of churches to reach these people through a relational approach to evangelism, one that is sensitive to their particular assumptions, priorities, and cultural backgrounds.
Because the Church has the greatest message in the world, Christians, of all people, should be the clearest communicators. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of training, most evangelicals are unable to clearly articulate their faith. According to a recent National Barna Survey, only 55% of American adults who identify as “Born Again” have actually shared their faith in the last twelve months. Among this 55%, those who feel competent in doing so are miniscule. Herein is the particular need that we wish to address: to provide evangelicals with the requisite training for understanding, building bridges, and effectively relating the gospel among their partially evangelized friends and loved ones.
Bringing this idea full circle, it is at this very point of equipping the church and engaging the partially evangelized where the glorious truth about personal relationship with Jesus is so important. In families, the workplace, college campuses and a multitude of other contexts, we have the privilege of showcasing the reality of God through a real, vibrant relationship with his Son. This is the gift that evangelicals have to offer the world. As we proclaim the gospel with doctrinal clarity, we are also careful to embody it with warmth and affection. With this combination, the light of the gospel shines before the world, in order to give glory to our Father who is in heaven.
Chris Castaldo serves as director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and a main contributor to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism (January 2012). He blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com.