Has there ever been a time in the past when you felt like you had the perfect plan? Perhaps in the moment you were thinking, “Man, I am knocking this one out of the ballpark.” But then God ends up changing that plan, which disappoints you initially, but in hindsight you think, “Goodness, was I an idiot back then. And if it were not for God’s grace I would be continuing in that idiocy.” I’m sure every Christian, when reflecting upon the past, has more than a handful of similar situations. One of mine is teaching Sunday School.
About four years ago, Matt Joldersma took a chance on me (thanks, Matt) and allowed me to teach the College and Young Adult Sunday School. I love the Scriptures and enjoy reading thick and tedious textbooks on doctrine and theology so this was a dream job for me. That was awesome, but it gets even better. I was given the opportunity to teach Romans, which to a theology-lover is like taking a three year old to a candy store and saying, “Happy Birthday! I bought you the whole store. Enjoy.” I was in my element. My plan was to teach Romans well and to stuff the heads of my students with copious amounts of theology, because after all, that’s all that really matters, right?
I’m ashamed to say that during that time, deep, deep, down I didn’t really care about building relationships with those in the class, or with discipling them and unpacking how the glorious gospel of God is to affect our lives and change them dramatically, both individually and as a church body. But that was okay. I was teaching Romans. And I was teaching it well. And that’s what mattered. It was my perfect plan.
Thankfully, though, God changed that plan. And I went along with Him…because He graciously made me. The first thing he did was to pull me out of the class. A decision was made to split the class in order to sustain intimacy and discipleship within two smaller groups instead of one large group. The first Sunday with the new group (which had split from the big one), we had five people attend. The next couple months after that there were only three of us, and my wife, Mary, would leave early for choir. So for half of the class it would just be Colby Pike and me. This was very discouraging for me. I was having such a great time teaching Romans and it all ended very abruptly. At first God’s plan for me seemed so secure and perfect: teach Romans and have a great time doing it. When class was just the two of us I felt like I had lost that plan and the future seemed a bit more muddled. During that time I became discouraged, confused, and disappointed.
A couple months later, the class started to grow a little which was great because then I could continue the perfect plan of making people more knowledgeable about theology. But God changed my plan yet again. About that time I went through a period of depression that lasted for several years. For the first time in my life I felt absolutely helpless. Before, I was so certain about everything and so confident in my knowledge of theology. Then, my life was characterized by fear, uncertainty, and doubts. I was forced to ask myself tough questions – the toughest, in fact. Was life worth living? The answer to two even bigger questions would answer that: Is God real? And, is the gospel true? In agony, I wrestled back and forth with these questions. But Jesus was near and sweet to me during this time.
In Ephesians 1:15-22 Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts that they would KNOW the truth and weightiness of the gospel. What we need to understand from this text is that Paul is not praying for a superficial, surface-level knowledge, but rather a deep, intimate, personal knowledge of Christ and the gospel that embraces Jesus for who He is and what He has done for us. Before God allowed depression into my life and led me through that particular trial, I chiefly acted as if I were a scientist and Jesus was a fascinating specimen that I was studying from an objective distance. Going through my struggle with depression helped me to see that Christ is a marvelous reality that touches upon every facet of my life. He is not just a fact to be learned. He is not just a doctrine to be understood. He is a Person. The Savior. My Lord. At that point, my job as a Sunday School teacher ceased to be about filling my students’ heads with facts so that they could all win Bible Jeopardy. Rather teaching became about introducing them to the weightiness and realities of the gospel and how that gospel changes us individually and corporately.
A Group of “Many Colors”
God wasn’t finished. Another one of my plans when it came to Sunday School was the plan of conformity. When it comes to Sunday School, this is what we expect, right? Similar people in a similar age bracket from similar life stages. When our small group broke off from the College and Young Adult Sunday School, our plan was to create a Sunday School for young couples with young kids, because after all, Mary and I were a young couple with young kids. So from the inception of our new group, every Sunday we waited for those young couples with young kids to walk through our doors. But that’s not what happened.
If you ever end up visiting our small group you’ll notice there are not two people who are alike. For instance, take me. Like I said before, I read for fun. That’s right. I don’t even like to go outside. I like staying in my house and reading text books. Oh yeah, I also watch Star Trek on the side. Can you see me being good friends with say, a fire fighter who likes to power para-glide in his spare time? Or an outdoorsman who raises his own chickens and cattle? Yeah. Me neither. But these people are in my small group. We have become like family.
In fact, when it comes to the majority of the people who are a part of our small group, the first time they came in, in my mind I thought, “Yeah right. They’re not going to like this at all. This will be the last time we see them.” But they have stayed! I’m amazed because in many ways we’re not alike at all. Most are older than me, some wiser than me, many have different likes and dislikes, different social backgrounds, economic backgrounds, etc. And every Sunday morning I look around and I am dumbfounded that we are all in a room together drinking coffee and hanging out like it’s no big deal. How does that happen?
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul unpacks a similar relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles – two groups of people that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t belong together. They were living life together as the family of God. What had to happen so that this could take place? “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility,” (Ephesians 2:13-16). Christ, on the cross, did not just die so he could purchase ME and ME ALONE, but rather, he shed his blood to purchase a CHURCH that spans across all backgrounds, all ages, all life-stages, all nations, all tribes, and all tongues. Paul, in Ephesians 3:10, calls this the “manifold wisdom of God” which, in the Greek, is literally translated the “the ‘many-colored’ wisdom of God.” And that’s what we experience every Sunday in the Ephesians Class – a colorful group purchased and pieced together by the blood of Christ.
His Tangible Love in Our Community
Now, this wasn’t what I expected, planned, or even wanted. What I wanted was to fill people’s heads with facts. What God gave to us was entirely different and better. We have a community in which we do life together through further grasping the weightiness and glory of Jesus Christ, through prayer and fellowship, and through ongoing discipleship. Francis Schaeffer, commenting on John 13, said that “one of the most important apologetics the church has is a community of Christians who love one another for there we see the tangible love of Christ displayed in real space and real time.” That is what we have in the Ephesians Class by God’s grace. Not theory. Not just facts. The love of Christ tangibly expressed in community.