There are a few times that we see the Holy Spirit speak to individuals in the New Testament. The Spirit reveals to Simeon at the temple that he has now seen the Messiah. The Spirit speaks to Philip and tells him to go over by the chariot where the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah, setting up the first presentation of the Gospel to an African that we’re aware of.
But Acts 13 is a unique scene. This is the first and only time that we see the Spirit speak to a church, and specifically the leaders of a church. And what does the Holy Spirit say?
“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
That is exactly what the church does. There are five leaders in the church at Antioch at this time, and now they are about to send two of them. So from my perspective, this leads me to some questions that I think are worthy of consideration:
First, are we hearing the Holy Spirit today? Does he ever say that we should be sending people? I remember when we left our home church in Colorado to come to Catania, one of the leaders brought this issue up to me. He was saying that they felt that it was a sacrifice to send us, which was humbling to hear, but that the sacrifice was worth it for the Kingdom.
I hadn’t necessarily considered it in this way, but it is important that we do so. It is important that we send our best. It is important that we send out those who are the most prepared and most ready to take the Gospel to the rest of the world.
Or are we trying to manage and control the people? Very rarely would anyone ever admit that this is what is happening, but frankly it is difficult for me to imagine otherwise at times. Why else do we rarely talk about going? Why else do we rarely speak of a strategy to see more disciples made? Why else do we rarely speak of a strategy to see more churches planted? My belief is that we try to control the movement of the Holy Spirit instead of equipping and sending. Which leads me to the third question:
Are we equipping people to send them? Are they ready to go? Have they been prepared to make disciples and plant churches? I hear leaders complain of the situation where people want to leave the church to go, and they complain that they aren’t prepared to go. But whose fault is that? Have these people ever been encouraged to go? Have they ever been encouraged to practice? Have they ever been trained to share with someone else or to make a disciple? Have we ever had a conversation with them about what God is calling them to do? Or have we instead simply assumed that they should just sit in our church Sunday after Sunday? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone decides to leave to go. And we shouldn’t be upset about that. It should be expected that they want to go, and it should happen in the context of a community that is dynamically praying, seeking, thinking, and planning to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see the expansion of the Kingdom.
Let us be amongst the churches that listen to the Holy Spirit and send people to make disciples and plant new churches. God help us to lead like this.
Herod had seen how the church was growing. They not only had, in fact, the numbers of people, but they also had a higher-profile convert in Saul as he was no longer persecuting the church, but was now instead speaking for Jesus as the Christ.
Herod was the feudal king over the area for Rome, and he wasn’t ignorant of all that was going on. These Jesus-followers were preaching another King, and he couldn’t continue to do nothing. He needed to act, so he had James executed and Peter put in prison.
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
The church is now on the defensive. Its leaders are being arrested and thrown in prison. In fact, they are being killed because of their faith. There isn’t an escape, unless the Lord acts.
In Peter’s case, Jesus moves and brings Peter out of prison. In James’ case, he is killed. When it says that James was put to death with the sword, it means that he was probably beheaded, similar to what happened with John the Baptist.
We can’t explain why God would allow Peter to continue on in the body and why He would allow James to be killed. We can’t say that one was better than the other. We can simply say that this is how God decided to use each of these men, because through both of the cases, we see a familiar refrain to what we had seen previously. Following the death of James, the jailing and release of Peter, and ultimately Herod’s death, the familiar refrain is: But the word of God continued to spread and flourish, which is verse 24, the last verse in chapter 12.
God will use all of these circumstances. He uses the death of two people and the internment of Peter for His good and His glory. He uses each of these circumstances for Himself. Not for James or Peter to feel good about themselves. Not for the church to feel great about the wonderful victories that God is accomplishing on their behalf. But even through the pain and sorrow of losing people and terrible things happening to them, God’s word continues to spread. God receives more glory even through these situations.
We shouldn’t imagine, therefore, that the life of a Christian should be rosy and great. Instead, we should understand that God wants to use each of us for His good and His glory.
As Peter returned to Jerusalem from Cornelius’s house, he began to face criticism. He had gone into the house of a Gentile, and had even eaten with them. That is definitely unlawful, according to the Jewish customs.
But Peter had a story that they hadn’t heard. They thought they knew all that they needed to know, but in truth, God was doing something different. He was doing something new. Peter told them of his vision and about the angel that had appeared to Cornelius. He told them of the other witnesses that had gone with him to Cornelius’s house. He told them that the Holy Spirit had told him not to fear going with the men that Cornelius had sent to find him.
But the closer to the conversation was that Peter told them that they had received the Holy Spirit. As he was preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon all of the people in Cornelius’s house, and this is a definite confirmation that God has accepted these people. Even the Gentiles, whom had never been God’s people, were now accepted into God’s family. Even they are now saved and given eternal life.
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
The Holy Spirit is the confirmation. Someone might be able to be baptized, but only the Spirit of God can confirm the work that God has done in that person’s life. If the person has received the Holy Spirit, that person has now been made to be a new creation and is fully and wholly accepted by God. Otherwise, they are not. Otherwise, they haven’t entered into God’s grace and mercy.
Peter said that he remembered what Jesus had told them: John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Man will baptize with water, but God will give His Holy Spirit. Jesus himself is the one who will give his Spirit to his people.
Jesus’s words were playing out right in front of their eyes. He had told the disciples, just before leaving and returning to heaven that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Acts 10, the ends of the earth are opening up to them right before their eyes.
We had seen another time, when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch on the southern road out of Israel, that there was a Gentile who was receiving Christ. Here in this scene in Acts 10, though, we see Peter, who is the de facto leader of the Apostles, have the experience of having a vision, and have the experience of seeing multiple Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit. This was a story that he will be able to tell everyone to confirm that the Gentiles, indeed, can now come to God through Christ. God has opened the way for the rest of the world to be reconciled to Him!
We had seen thousands of people come to Christ in Jerusalem, even on the first day that the Holy Spirit had been poured out at Pentacost.
Then we saw that the movement was beginning to spread throughout Judea as believers begin to show up outside of Jerusalem and we see it spread throughout the area.
Then in Acts 8, as the church was persecuted and scattered, we see Philip followed by Peter and John in Samaria, and new disciples begin to be made in that area as well.
Now, as Peter is summoned to go to Caesarea, he comes to the house of a centurion, a Roman, the very people that represent the political oppression of the Jewish people. These are the people that would never be able to enter the Kingdom of God, and yet that is exactly what happens. An angel speaks to Cornelius, the centurion. Jesus and the Holy Spirit speak to Peter. Then they speak to one another and the Holy Spirit comes upon these Gentiles and they are baptized.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
And this story sets off an incredible series of events. Peter goes back to the rest of the apostles to tell them what has happened, making it now acceptable for the believers to speak to the Gentiles and see them come to faith in Christ. In the meantime, Jesus has also called Saul who will be Christ’s chosen instrument to take the message to the rest of the Gentile world. Jesus is moving aggressively through his disciples – now apostles – to make the Kingdom of God known to the ends of the earth, just as he had said.
We should do no less. The ends of the earth are available to us at this time in history unlike any other time. Whether we think about the internet or our ability to travel to any part of the earth within a few hours, we have reach to the ends of the earth. This movement, to see Christ proclaimed and see the Kingdom of God expand to the ends of the earth, began to have fulfillment at Cornelius’s house, but continues with us even today.
The narrative of the book of Acts takes a pause and moves away from what was happening through Peter for a few chapters, but as he comes back into focus at the end of Acts 9, we see a great miracle that Peter does as nearly a complete imitation of an experience that he had with Jesus.
Peter had been traveling, something that we hadn’t seen much before the persecution had broken out, but now he had gone to Lydda and had healed a man named Aeneas there. While in Lydda, two men come to get him to take him to Joppa, which is today at the coast, at the old port in modern-day Tel Aviv.
When Peter arrived, he found that a disciple there named Tabitha had died. Her body had already been washed and was being prepared for burial. They had placed her in an upper room.
But just as Jesus had done in the case of Jairus’s daughter, he sent everyone out of the room except for Peter, James, and John, and the daughter’s parents, then called the little girl to stand up, which is exactly what she had done.
In Peter’s case, he did very similarly. He had been called from another city and he came. As he arrived, he sent everyone out of the room. In this case, he took a moment to pray, presumably asking Jesus to work on his behalf, and then told Tabitha to stand up. And she did, to the amazement of everyone!
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
I think that we see here an imitation of what Jesus had done. Peter didn’t have any specific recipes in his own mind for what he should do in the case of someone who had died. He was simply following the example of what he had seen Jesus do. He had walked with Jesus and seen his actions, and so now he simply did the same.
And what about us? We can not only read the teachings of Jesus, but we can imitate his actions too, can’t we? Can’t we also do as our master did? This might include miracles, but there are many other ways that we can learn from what Jesus did. What was his strategy in getting his message, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, out? Should we do the same? What did he both do and teach his disciples to do in the face of danger? Should we do the same? How did he live, and move, and work among various peoples and nations with whom he came in contact. Should we do the same?
Peter imitated Jesus in his actions. We must not only know the theology of Christ, but we must know his actions, his practice, and do the same.
Stephen tried. He had been seized and accused of blasphemy by the synagogue of the Freedmen. The name of the synagogue has some interesting irony given the story that Stephen is about to tell them…
Anyway, as they took him before the Sanhedrin, the high priest ask Stephen to explain himself, simply asking him whether the charges were true. Instead of responding Yes or No, Stephen begins to tell them the Gospel story, but using the story of Moses, in a way that they should be able to understand.
He speaks of Abraham, then goes to Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and explains how the Israelites ended up in captivity in Egypt. My sense is that Stephen is showing the long march into slavery so as to show the deliverance that God gave to his people through Moses.
Moses comes onto the scene and is called by God to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, which, through a process, he does. This is an important part of the Gospel message, that God has seen us in our slavery to sin (represented by Egypt in this case) and then sets His people free through a messianic figure (Moses in this story). In the same way, we have been slaves to sin and have been set free by the true Messiah, Jesus Christ!
Stephen turns the tables at this point and begins to teach. He says:
Moses spoke of one, a prophet, who was to come. Moses said that they must listen to him! This is the same Prophet that the Jews asked about when they spoke to John the Baptist, as recorded in John 1:21. Stephen is starting to lay the groundwork. Jesus is this Prophet that they were supposed to listen to!
“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
Stephen goes on to talk about sin and sacrifices. The Israelites wouldn’t obey God, so God gave them a way to atone for sin through sacrifices. But their hearts don’t, and won’t change. They prefer their sin. They prefer the idols and gods from the other nations around them. They have rejected God as their God, so God will punish them through the nations such as Babylon which will come to destroy them.
Now Stephen is on a roll. Time to go for the jugular. Time to speak about the temple. The temple is the place where God’s presence is supposed to be found. But Stephen points out that God has even told them that they can’t build a house for him. God made it all. He isn’t held by anything that a human would make!
And then he lands the final blow:
Jesus is the Messiah and you killed him!
And what is more, Stephen looks up to heaven and says that he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing there at the right hand of God.
Any more questions? It seems clear where Stephen stands. And he is stoned for it. Just like Jesus, who had told almost the exact same story to the Jews, Stephen follows in his Master’s footsteps and is killed for blasphemy because the Jews wouldn’t believe in Jesus as the Christ.
Stephen was attempting to speak to them in a way that they should be able to understand. The Israelites know their history. It is written down. It is celebrated. It is passed on from one generation to the next and is known. But unfortunately, even in the midst of the story that they know, they couldn’t see what God was doing, that God was repeating Himself, foreshadowing the story of Christ through the story of Moses. Let us not make the same mistake, but instead see God working through history to save his people and reestablish His Kingdom here amongst us, even today.
I came across this substack email by Anthony Bradley recently, and given that today was a “review” day for our Band study, meaning that we’re not reading a particular chapter in the Bible today and should instead be looking back on what we read, I thought this seemed like a good point of reference from which to share a couple of thoughts.
The main point that I took out of what Bradley wrote was that The Gospel Coalition’s movement had failed because it focused on preaching the Gospel only. I don’t know the specific details here, but Bradley and others that he quotes suggest that those who purport to belong to the the Coalition, those that have focused solely on preaching the Gospel, have also failed in at least two great ways:
First, they have failed in the sense that they have turned a blind eye to the sin of the church around them. The issues of our day, such as sex scandals or abuses in the church have gone unaddressed, they say. Or other cultural issues such as those raised by Black Lives Matter or Covid are woefully unaddressed.
Second, the article seems to say, preaching the Gospel only gives a sense of how to be liberated from our sin, but doesn’t give us a sense of how to practically live. It is woefully wanting in this regard.
I don’t intend to try to defend any of the people that are being associated with The Gospel Coalition. I don’t know them. I don’t follow their work that closely, so I can’t really say. Bradley and those that he is quoting may be dead on in these regards.
But the part that struck me in this article is similar to a thought and a discussion that we have had quite frequently here where we live and work. Our discussion has been: Which Gospel do we want to preach?
Wait, what do you mean? There’s one Gospel, right?
Well, yes. In one sense that is right. But in another sense, we frequently lack completion in the Gospel that we preach.
On the one hand, the Gospel that is frequently focused on and preached in our churches today is the Gospel message that we see focused on through Paul’s writings in the New Testament. We speak of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. And that is true. It is an amazing reality to be forgiven of our sins. It is incredibly good news that God has loved us and has given us forgiveness.
But very often, we stop there, and I think that the impression that our stopping gives is that this is the end of the message. Even for those that have read through the Bible many times, they will still focus on the fact that God came to earth in the form of Jesus to give himself for us. To save us. Because he loved us.
Do you see a pattern in the discussion?
God is serving me.
Hang on. I think we need to back up because we’ve missed something along the way. Are we really saying that God is doing everything He is doing just to raise me up? Just because he wants to give me forgiveness?
Yes, His grace has come to us freely. Agreed. We haven’t deserved anything. Agreed. But God is doing something significantly more, and if we ignore these other things that He is doing, I think that we end up with situations like what we see here. We end up with people saying that the message of the forgiveness of sins doesn’t give us a way to live.
And they would be right. It doesn’t.
But what does give us a way to live is the more full and complete picture of what God is doing. That Gospel that I have explained above, which again, let me be clear, I do believe is good news and is Biblical, is an incomplete telling of the story.
I believe that the New Testament is nothing without the Old Testament. We need to back up to the time of the Old Testament, to the time of the Israelites, to be able to understand the context of the story. You see, God was the King over His people, the Israelites. They had prophets who spoke to them from God, their King, but they didn’t have a human king. They were a people unlike every other people.
The Israelites, though, looked around themselves and said that they wanted to be like the other peoples around them. They liked the lives that the others were living. As we frequently do today, they even thought that those lives, which were sinful in so many ways, were what they wanted to participate in, how they wanted to live. And what that led to was a rejection of God as their King and an embrace of the idea that they wanted to be like the other nations around them. They wanted a king who is a human, just like those other nations.
God allows it. He says that the people have rejected Him and, with many warnings, He allows them in the direction that they want to go.
And the Israelites pay the price. They are eventually destroyed and carried off into distant lands. This was God using the might of these other nations to punish and swallow up the Israelites, sending them out of the land that God had promised them.
But God wasn’t done. As Jesus came, what did he preach and speak about the most? The Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom was being reestablished on the earth. Jesus came announcing, proclaiming, and demonstrating the Kingdom of God. And this is what Jesus called the Gospel. Very simply, the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Living as subjects of the Kingdom of God gives us the way to live. It shows us the direction. In fact, the King, Jesus himself has given us instructions on what we should be doing until he returns. We can decide to reject those instructions and then claim that we don’t have a way to live, but that doesn’t mean, by any means that we don’t have a practical way forward. We absolutely do. Not only in obeying commandments and avoiding sin, but in proactively moving forward, a purpose and a reason for doing what we’re doing, and thus we should make decisions and take action based on those purposes.
The Gospel of the forgiveness of sins is part of the Gospel of the Kingdom, but it is only the first step. It would be as if we saw the front door of the house, and the only part of the house we could see was that door, but we say, “Here is the house!”. We’re only looking at the door. The door is amazing. The door is marvelous, but it is still only the front door.
God has given us forgiveness of sins through Christ because that was the payment to bring us into the Kingdom. Jesus’s first proclamation and preaching told the people to repent and believe for the Kingdom of God is near. If we repent and believe, the Gospel of forgiveness of sins, we have come to the front door, but a mansion awaits. Christ has given us access to an incredible house.
However, it is HIS Kingdom. It is HIS. It is not ours. We are, in one sense, subjects to the King, and in another sense, His children. And Jesus has given instructions to his servants / children while he is away.
And yet, he is returning! And he has work for us to do in the meantime. And all of this should speak directly to the practical realities of the Gospel on our daily lives. If we live in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of America, or the kingdom of the world, or the kingdom of the church, or the kingdom of Ryan, we see how things should be and we work for change. We see injustice and we work for justice. We see unrighteousness and we work for righteousness. We work for it because we have a purpose. We dedicate our lives to it because we see the overriding flow of eternity through the time that we are living now and we want our lives to have a purpose within that flow.
My reply and perspective, then, to Bradley article, is that we must see what he is saying, but then we must look at the true story that God is telling and realize that there is a big missing piece to our message. We have thought that the story was about us, the forgiveness of our sins, when in fact, the story is about Christ and his Kingdom. Our part becomes much clearer in the context of the bigger story and the Gospel of the Kingdom.
There are a few times that we see Luke say this in the book of Acts, that the word of God was spreading across an area. Following the initial “explosion” onto the scene, when Peter preached and 3,000 people believed, the church had been growing on a daily basis.
But Luke specifically notes here in Acts 6 that the word of God was spreading:
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
The apostles had faced a situation in which some of the Greek-background widows were being overlooked in the distribution of foods. They considered how they could be involved, but decided that it would be best if they continued to lead prayer and the “ministering of the word”, essentially meaning the teaching and preaching of God’s word.
It wasn’t as if these other men who were chosen to manage the food distribution were second-rate guys. Instead, the qualifications were that they were men known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. There were seven that they chose and they became the first deacons, responsible to manage some of the physical work of the church.
We can even see that Stephen, one of the seven that was chosen, was targeted by the Jews of one of the synagogues because he had been performing signs and was proficient in speaking about his faith. So he wasn’t limited by any means in what he was being asked to do. His “ministry” wasn’t just to give food to the widows. Stephen was working also in speaking and preaching the word of God. He was also performing signs and wonders to confirm the words that he was preaching. Stephen was not only a man who was at work in the physical ministry but also at work in telling others about Christ.
But it was immediately after this division of labor and the caring for the issues of the business of the church while not neglecting the word that Luke notes that the word of God was continuing to spread. Bringing more workers into the fold allowed God to use each of the individuals for the greater purpose that He was unfolding in their midst.
I have thought for a little while that it is important to write in greater detail the reasons for expanding the work of Agape Bici, a project that we have undertaken over the last several months. I’ve thought that I might try to write several posts, but the more that I have started to write, the more that I think it would be best if I simply create one longer post here to lay out my entire thinking on one page. In that way, my hope is to create a cohesive set of thoughts amongst all of the various parts in my mind instead of attempting to cobble together several different parts into a cohesive whole. Let’s see how it will go… 😉
If you’re reading through what I’ve written and want to jump down to a certain part, here are a series of links to allow you to go to the section that you want to read:
The Situation – What brought us here to Sicily in the first place? What is the context for our deciding to stay here and work long-term?
Our Arrival and Work – This is more of a theological underpinning of how we see our presence and work in Sicily.
A Political Note – Immigration is a hot issue right now. I want to take a moment to make a point about the politics that surround the work that we do.
A History of Our Work – This is more of a practical recounting of the work. Not so much an historical retelling but just attempting to give you a sense of where we have come from
The Ten:Two Team – How can we mobilize more workers and prepare them to enter into the harvest field?
Agape Bici – This is the bike ministry that we opened in Catania back in 2020. We see this work being an integral part to helping us open new churches and launch new workers as we move forward here in Catania.
Church – We have started a church to which we are receiving workers and from which we are launching workers. Our vision is that this church will replicate itself, both in Catania and outside of Catania, and plant many more churches.
I think the best place to start would be to take a step back and talk about the overall mission of Search Party and what we are trying to do here in Sicily and beyond. Let’s start with why we came here in the first place.
Back in 2015, a friend of mine introduced me to the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, where people from across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia were coming to Europe through various routes and ports. Many of them came through Libya using old fishing boats that smugglers and human traffickers would take to bring the people into Europe. They would take the individual’s money, promising them a much better life in Europe, and would set them out onto the water with little more than a hope and a prayer.
To give you a sense of what I am talking about, you might find these articles and videos interesting:
Even though both of those media items are from 2015, the situation continues on even today. Here is the latest situation in Italy according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. You’ll see that even last year, 2023, was the highest over the last several years after the government had taken significant steps, including those referred to as “dancing with the devil” in an attempt to stop or significantly slow the flow of migrants coming into Europe.
Our Arrival and Work
Arriving in Europe, we understood that there were few workers addressing the situation in Sicily and southern Italy, and fewer yet considering the spiritual issues that this situation would present. So, coming to Sicily, we have attempted to look at this refugee situation with the eyes of Apostle Paul when he said the following to the Athenians:
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
In the case of the Mediterranean Refugee Crsis, like many other movements of people around the world today, we see that there are people that the boundary lines that Paul spoke of are moving, and thinking about these situations, we asked ourselves why that would be. There are several reasons, of course, including war, poverty, hunger, and just a simple desire for a better life, but we realized that if we didn’t consider what Paul said here in Acts 17, we would be missing something important, something, in fact, fundamental.
Paul says that God marked out the appointed times in history for all peoples so that they will know Him, that they would seek Him, that they would find Him. God is not far, but He places the people around us to help us to find Him.
And so, what is happening in the case of the refugee crisis? The boundary lines are moving. And why? We believe that it is because God Himself is making Himself known. He wants those who have not known Him to know Him, and so God intends to use His people to make Himself known.
This is the reason that we moved our family to Sicily in 2016. We came to Catania so that we could be part of what we believe God is doing in the world today, making Himself known to people who have not known Him. Most of the people arriving in Europe are coming from places that have been resistent to the Gospel. Most are coming from Muslim nations. Most are coming from what is referred to as the 10/40 window, and in fact Sicily itself sits just inside of that window, making it a strategic location both from the perspective of the migration of people entering into Europe, but also from the perspective of reaching into the rest of that window.
A Political Note
I hate to interrupt the flow of what I am trying to communicate here, but immigration is a signficant political issue right now, so I think it is important for me to take a moment to address the political “elephant in the room”, as they say. I actually follow politics quite closely. It interests me and I watch the political movements both in the U.S. as well as where we live in Italy and elsewhere.
On the other hand, I also know that politics never brings true and lasting change. Working within politics, or yearning for political change doesn’t change anyone’s heart. Politics are primarily about power here on the earth, but this earth is passing away. It is temporary.
As I’ve thought about the immigration situation that we have stepped into here in Sicily, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar type of situation that is occurring on the southern border of my home country back in the U.S. There are people streaming across the border by the thousands, and even hundreds of thousands in those areas. I don’t see this as a good thing. I think it is wrong to allow people to break the laws of a country, to simply not enforce the laws that are already written. My sense has always been that, with regard to immigration, we should either have the laws that we have and enforce them, or specifically change the law. Let’s not say one thing and do another.
So we haven’t come to work in the midst of the flow of immigration because we agree, necessarily, with what the refugees and immigrants are doing. We don’t agree that they should just show up on the shores of Italy and say, “we’re here” expecting that the government will take care of them.
But, on the other hand, that is what has happened, and that is what is continuing to happen, and the people are here. That is just the reality. And so, looking at that reality, and seeing where these people have come from, we have needed to look at the situation with much different eyes, the eyes of the Kingdom of God. Looking at the situation with that perspective, we consider where these people have come from and we recognize that they haven’t understood the truth about Christ. They haven’t understood God’s plan for them. They haven’t known that Christ has already given himself for them, to purchase them out of the kingdom of darkness and make them part of the Kingdom of God.
And so, for this reason, we have come to Sicily and have inserted ourselves into the flow of immigration in Europe. Not because we like what has happened and what is continuing to happen, but because we want to be part of the opportunity to see the Kingdom of God expand among the unreached, those who have never heard the Gospel before, in a strategic part of the world that has relatively close, and relatively inexpensive geographical access to much of the rest of the unreached world.
A History of Our Work
Since moving to Catania, we have primarily worked to reach out to the immigrants and refugees. In addition, though, we have also worked to train and look for Sicilian Italians who would work along with us, both to reach out to the refugees and immigrants as well as to other Sicilians that they know.
We have sought to both evangelize and disciple new believers as well as train existing workers. We’ve translated the Zume Training materials into Italian as well as written our own training materials, translating those as well into Italian to more closely reflect the discipleship process that we use here in Catania, based on the Four Fields discipleship and church planting process.
We have heavily recruited missional workers to move to Sicily to work along with us, having as many as eight different families working together at one point, then through a process and series of years reducing down to three families over the last 2-3 years. And to do this, we have, and continue to run short-term team programs and summer internships in an attempt to continue to recruit workers.
Most of the work has been focused on prayer walking, sharing the Gospel, baptizing new believers, and then teaching those that we have reached to reach back into their own communities with the Gospel.
Our team now has a center in the downtown area of Catania where we run a bicycle shop, lead a small church of people from several different nations, and offer regular Bible studies and discipleship training. In addition, our teammates also have a community garden ministry both in the city of Catania as well as at land owned by one of our partnering churches.
Using our center in Catania, we have also developed a missionary field-based training program to help both incoming missionaries to Italy learn to live and work cross-culturally using the Four Fields process. Thankfully, God has also given us the opportunity to use the program with others coming from unreached nations, to send them back into the field after having been trained in doing the disciple-making and church planting process that we use here in Catania.
Finally, we have extensions of our work also in other parts of Italy and we are working to continue to train and send workers, whether they be incoming missional workers from the US or other English-speaking nations, or from Italy, or any number of other locations.
We have truly been blessed by what we have seen God do, both in us and through us up to this point!
The Great Commission Pipeline
A few years ago, I saw a video created by Troy Cooper for the NoPlaceLeft network and it made me think that this is the vision that I would like to promote for our work as well, including the primary vision for Search Party, the organization that we started in 2019. Here is the video that he made:
The video talks about developing a movement of disciples and churches in our home area and then sending them to the next field where more unreached people groups can be reached with the Gospel, making more disciples and planting more churches.
This is what we believe God wants to do through us. We want to bring people from our home country to work with us here. In that sense, we are creating a pipeline from our home churches to the unreached where we are.
But it doesn’t end there. In fact, the work is only beginning. Instead, from here, we want to send the disciples that we have made out to other fields. We see this happening as we launch workers from Catania into other parts of Italy and other parts of Europe, but even more importantly, launching workers back into the rest of the 10/40 window where more of the unreached people groups can be reached. We are connecting with the unreached here in Catania, but we can reach even more people by sending workers back into the home countries of the people that have arrived here in Europe.
So our desire is to create a Great Commission Pipeline in to Catania, and develop as well a Great Commission Pipeline out of Catania. To do this, we believe that we will need to connect a few different pieces of a strategic puzzle together, and that leads me to the first puzzle piece: Mobilizing and preparing workers.
The Ten:Two Team
In Luke, chapter 10, Jesus sends out seventy-two of his disciples to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. This story has always captivated me in the way that Jesus sends his disciples, but I want to focus on a certain part of the story for my purposes in this article.
As Jesus was sending the disciples, he said:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
Jesus was sending his disciples out, but the first thing that he tells them to do is to pray for more workers because the harvest is plentiful.
Question to consider: Where are these workers that the disciples are supposed to pray for going to come from?
The disciples are the only workers at this point. There are no pastors. There are no missionaries. There is no one else. They are it.
Obviously, the only place that the workers could come from would be the harvest field itself. So, the harvest field that Jesus is sending the disciples into is also the source of the workers.
Now, in our day, we have pastors and missionaries and many other types of workers, but yet the harvest is still plentiful, and the workers are still few. So, from our perspective, we are praying for more workers, and we are working to prepare them and send them out as well. That is what the Ten:Two Team is all about. Pray for workers, mobilize them, and send them out. Whether they come from the U.S., from Europe, or from other unreached areas… Whether they come from believing or unbelieving backgrounds… Our desire is that the Gospel is preached and disciples of Jesus are made amongst people from all of the nations that we are touching here in Catania.
As mentioned above, we have had short-term team programs, internship programs, and missionary training programs that we have used in multiple contexts. We are moving ahead to aggregate and coalesce these programs together underneath a team that we will call the Ten:Two Team, working to pray for and mobilize workers, training them and sending them to do the work. This will be a significant part of the development of the Great Commission Pipeline here, continuing the formalized programs to receive and send workers into the harvest field, and in the meantime continue to develop disciples locally to do the same, sending them into the harvest field of Catania, or sending them out of Catania to do the work elsewhere also.
In the midst of releasing from the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, we opened a new community center in the downtown area of Catania. Initially, it was the home of several different activities, including a bike shop, but in the beginning of last year, we decided to focus our efforts to simply – and only – be a bike shop. From that bike shop, we can, of course, do other activities, but instead of being known as a place where a lot of activities happen, we decided to make it into one activity from the perspective of what other people see.
For that reason, we removed the walls that separated the bike shop from the rest of the center and instead created one large shop. In this location, we have fixed bikes, received bikes in donation to fix them and give them away for free, and done outreaches from the shop, taking the creations of out teammate into the piazza to connect with people through fun on “crazy bikes”, bikes that probably shouldn’t be on the street but are fun to take in the piazza to try out riding. You can see more about what we have been doing with Agape Bici up to now on our Facebook page or by launching into the picture gallery from the website.
In the midst of working with the bike shop, and even more generally with mission work that we have done, there has always been one particular challenge, to have the funds that are needed to be able to do what the work is calling us to do.
From one perspective, this has been a challenge just to keep the center, the physical location, open. We have had several generous donors, and we certainly intend to continue to receive donations to keep expanding the work that we are doing, but we also have a sense of responsibility to try to figure out how to make the bike shop work self-sustaining. Instead of continuing to require donations to have the location and continue to do the work, we feel that it is time for us to find a way to help support and sustain at least a portion of the work here in Sicily.
In addition, we have also consistently faced the challenge of calling people into ministry work but forcing them to find their own support so that they can live. In some ways, I see this as a good thing as it can be part of confirming a calling to work for Christ, but on the whole it is a real challenge. It is difficult to have someone unable to eat and yet still call them to lead the work into their own communities. This is compounded in the fact that we work with immigrants and refugees who have little to no relational network where we live and don’t have an obvious path for creating or casting a wide net for relationships given many of the cultural, language, and relational barriers that exist between locals and immigrants in any location, and this is certainly true also here in Sicily where there exists a relatively closed-loop familial culture that is often quick to embrace the stranger on the surface but closed to the foreigner at a deeper level.
So, given the above, we began to investigate the possibilities that Agape Bici could be a way to help sustain the work in Catania, at least in part, and at least in connection with the two points above. If you would like to learn more about the overall plan that we put together, you can do that from this page, but I will note that as we prayed, thought about, and continued to investigate, we realized that there were three main things that we wanted to accomplish as we developed Agape Bici for the future:
Establishing a known and trusted location in Catania
In Sicily, there is frequent discussion about a “punto di riferimento”, a point of reference. A place that is known from which you can continue to navigate to other places as well. That which is established and known is considered to be trusted.
In our initial work, the only thing that was known, and possibly trusted, was us ourselves, but it was difficult to build a community, and especially a community of practice from us individually.
What was worse is that we are working with people who have very little that is established in terms of relationships with the local culture, and for that matter, relationships with other immigrants and refugees. As an outsider looking in, we frequently think that the immigrants would have community with one another because of their common background in coming from other countries, but we have actually found that there can be, within some groups, an even greater distance between them as a result of a competitive spirit or a lack of knowing who to trust within the context of this new and foreign culture. Everything is new and nothing is easy, so everyone is on edge.
When we opened the center in the downtown area of Catania, we noticed that some of our relationships began to change. We were able to develop a deeper sense of connection and trust because it was a known quantity, a known place. It was a place that people could come and connect with a community of people that they knew. They knew what they could expect when they came so they came to continue to have their bicycles fixed and to grow deeper in their relationship with Christ.
So we have an initial start in establishing and developing a location that is a known quantity in the area and we want to continue to develop this even further. We want Agape Bici to be a location that offers a service to the community but is also self-sustaining. We want it to be a place where bicycles are fixed but also cross-cultural relationships are made. We want it to be a place where we meet and are equipped in the Word of God but also a place from which we send out workers into the harvest field.
Furthermore, we see the fact that Agape Bici being a point of reference in that it can also allow us to connect with more people. As a known and trusted entity in the community, we will have the opportunity to reach into other institutions in the community using bicycles as a platform.
The example that I routinely provide on this point is that we will be able to connect with a refugee camp for the purpose of offering bicycles to the people that are living there. Or, we can offer bicycle repair courses in either English or Italian to provide new marketable skills to the refugees. Or we could offer to take the refugees on a bike ride up onto Mt. Etna, to experience a part of Sicily that they rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience.
And beyond this, we can look at other opportunities as well. Why not teach bicycle courses to children? Why not offer after-school programs that focus on bicycles, whether in physical fitness or in scholastics? With the right staffing and resources, we can do this, giving us the opportunity to not only be a positive force in the community but a positive force for the Gospel as we speak about our faith in the midst of the activities that we are doing.
But this reach into the community can only happen when you are a trusted entity, a known quantity.
Our desire is that Agape Bici is a point of reference for bicycles in Catania, but it is also a spiritual point of reference, where someone can come to know God and be equipped to tell others. And to do this, we need Agape Bici to become a point of reference in the community so that it will not only be here today but also tomorrow and into the future until it will be God’s will to close this work because it is no longer necessary.
Having sustainable funds for ongoing financial investment in the expansion of the Kingdom
Our desire is that we will be able to pay for the ongoing operations of Agape Bici as well as provide work that will help to support the workers, the workers of Agape Bici and the workers in the Kingdom.
We want the work to be self-sustainable. Each of the ex-pat missional workers will continue to receive support for their work, but from the perspective of the operational costs of the work on the ground, unrelated to personal support, our desire is that we will be able to cover those costs and support those costs through funds that we make from within the context of the work itself.
Even further, our desire is that we have the ability to support workers in the Kingdom of God by providing physical work for these workers. We can fix bicycles. We can rent bicycles. We can teach courses. And much more… There are many things that we can do by teaching people a physical work and skills that they can use to make money that will allow them to go on to use those funds to support themselves while they are making disciples of Christ amongst those that are the least-reached in the world.
Overall, our desire is that funds that we may be able to raise through the bike shop activities can be reinvested back into the work of the ministry here in Catania as well as be used to send people out from this place into other locations. We see the funds as playing a tanglible part in helping to expand the Kingdom of God here in Sicily and beyond.
Creating a reproducible model that we could use in other locations
Our desire is that this model could be built here in Catania, but eventually reproduced in other locations as well. There are a few ways in which we could see this happening:
First, we could imagine the possibility that Agape Bici opens locations in other cities. In this case, should this be the direction that we choose to go, we could open a branch of Agape Bici in a new location, allowing someone who is vetted and trusted and that knows both how we work together from the perspective of the bike shop as well as the mission of what we are attempting to do, to reach the unreached with the Gospel. In this case, Agape Bici could be a way for someone to take what they have learned while working in Catania and reproduce it in other places, making an income while also working to plant churches in the new city where they will live.
A second possibility, though, is that we could train someone to work within the bicycle industry, thus gaining skills for bicycle repair and how to run a business, using that to help support themselves as they move into other locations to be an ambassador for Christ in that new place and with those people. We have, in fact, already created and taken some initial stabs at an apprenticeship program. The program needs additional development and tweaking, but it is something that we can use in connection with the training programs from the Ten:Two team to prepare workers to go out into the field, thus giving them a practical way to support themselves while they are making disciples and planting churches in other locations.
Our desire is to give away the model, that it would be used for the Kingdom work to move forward in Catania and beyond. Bicycles are used everywhere, and their use is only growing. We can imagine that working within the bicycle world could be a useful skill that could be used in a signficant way in the Kingdom and so we are looking forward to seeing how God will use it in the future.
In early 2022, we began to think and dream about the possibility that God would start a new church that would meet there in the bike shop. We had been part of our sponsoring Italian church, but we felt that it was important for us to have a church community that both represented the values that we were teaching and promoting to the people that we were working with as well as provide an example of what we are trying to see planted in other locations as well.
We had actually seen four separate churches started before that time. These churches were led by the people that we had been teaching and coaching, but as those people left the area to move on into other locations, which frequently happens with refugees and immigrants, the groups fell apart because the leader was no longer there.
Moving to Sicily, we never had the intention of starting or leading a church ourselves, but given the situation, and given the fact that we were needing to find a way to demonstrate what “church” meant in the sense that we were trying to communicate, we decided to go ahead and start a new community that would meet at the bike shop on Sunday evenings.
We have taught a very simple idea of what church means with the idea that each person should be able to reproduce church in their own context as well. We don’t want to overcomplicate the idea of creating a church. Instead, we want to help those that we are teaching have a simple and clear way to lead their own groups that will become churches. For reference, here is a tool that we frequently use as a vision for our own healthy church, providing a vision for other healthy churches in the future:
The church that we’ve started has grown slowly, but from the perspective of bringing people in to Christian community and experiencing that community, beyond simply describing it with words, we now have an example through which we are able to show a community in action. We have a lot of work to do, but we are moving forward with the people that God has given us up to now.
Our goal is to develop a network of churches throughout Catania, bringing in and developing workers within the context of that network, and then sending them to start new churches either in Catania or in other locations. We believe that by leading a church, and eventually developing a network of churches, will allow us to prepare leaders to enter the life and work of God here in Catania, learn and be equipped to do the same elsewhere, and then send them out into other locations. These people may be Americans who are passing through as missionaries as part of the field training, they may be Italians who are coming to learn and participate in what we are doing, or they may be immigrants and refugees who are in Italy, having arrived from across the 10/40 window into Italy.
Putting it all together
Hopefully you can already see the direction of where we have come from and where we are hoping to go. Our goal is to see a movment, if not movements, of disciples among the refugees and immigrants here in Sicily, but I would certainly be happy if we saw that same thing happen from amongst the Sicilians and the rest of Italy as well as we would then have the people who could teach others to reach out to the refugees and immigrants. We’re praying that God will work amongst all of them.
To help accomplish these goals, we are putting in place a few different components:
First, church. Establishing a church that will reproduce leaders and reproduce churches is critical to seeing the expansion that we are hoping to see. We need to know and experience how we can be the workers within the Kingdom of God and send people out.
Second, mobilization and training. The Ten:Two Team is designed to mobilize workers to enter into the harvest field and teach them what they should do when they get there.
And third, practical outreach, financing, and support. There may be several responses to this need, but we believe that Agape Bici can be a significant answer to this question.
First, I believe that Agape Bici gives us a platform from which we can reach out to others in our area, and in any area that we might ultimately take the organization. We can share the Gospel, we can make disciples, and we can plant new churches from this starting place.
But we also want to use the gift that God has given us to develop the funding for the Kingdom work to go forward, whether that is related to the expenses for the work directly in Catania, in other locations, or in helping to support the people that we want to send to do the work of making disciples and planting churches.
As we do all of this, we see the opportunity for more workers to come and work with us to help further establish what we are doing and then receive and send workers from here in Catania into other harvest fields, whether they would be here in Italy, in the rest of Europe, or beyond into the rest of the countries in the 10/40 window, representing the least-reached of the world.
That’s a strange thing to say. I was worthy of suffering disgrace. Odd.
It would be even more strange to be happy that you were worthy to suffer disgrace. To rejoice that you had been disgraced.
But what would make the difference, and what did make the difference in the case of the disciples – now Apostles as they lead the church – is the reason that they were happy, the reason that they were rejoicing for the disgrace that they had been given. They were disgraced because of the Name, the Name of Christ.
The apostles were thrown in prison because of the jealousy of the high priest and his associates. The people were flocking to the apostles in droves because they were speaking and teaching of Jesus as the Messiah and performing healing miracles everywhere that they went. So the people wanted to come to them and this had made the Jewish leaders jealous.
An angel let the apostles out of prison and sent them back out into the temple courts to teach the people, which of course angered the high priest even more. They arrested the apostles yet again and were trying to decide what to do with them when Peter explained that they can’t be quiet as they wanted them to do. Instead, this Jesus that the leaders had crucified had now been raised up to heaven and was sitting at the right hand of God.
The story was getting worse! Previously, the chief priests had understood that Jesus was saying that he was the son of God. Now, his disciples were saying and teaching that he had been lifted up to heaven and was seated at his right hand! In their minds, that of the high priests who wouldn’t believe, it was as if the blasphemy would never end.
Thankfully, the sanity of Gamaliel won the day as he told the others that they would only be fighting against God (they already were!) if they were to try to detain or kill these men, the apostles. So the apostles were flogged and released and that is where we get these verses:
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
It is interesting to me the difference between the experience of this early church and that of today’s church, especially in the west. There are many aspects in which we could draw contrasts, but if I focus on these couple of verses, I see that the apostles expected disgrace and were happy to have received it. They expected that, because of their association with Jesus, because they preached and taught about Jesus, they would run against the culture. They weren’t trying to be arrested. They were simply trying to speak the truth of what they saw and what they experienced. They spoke of who Jesus is, and for this they were beaten and disgraced.
Do we speak of Jesus in the same way? Do we run against the prevailing culture in the same way? Or do we instead seek for safety and security? Are we OK with being disgraced for the Name of Christ? Is this a norm that we expect? Questions that are worth considering, I think…