May 28, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Despite its diminutiveness, the polyphemus moth is a dazzling and majestic silkworm, its wings adorned with eyespots (thus the name) of deep blue in a field of vibrant yellow. In her book Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard waxes poetically yet dolefully of a childhood experience of watching one such moth in its earliest moments. Like most moths, the polyphemus must undergo a delicate and urgent process shortly after emerging from its cocoon: it must unfurl its wings, allowing the blood to flow to fill them and the substance coating the wings to harden and solidify them. On that day, a friend of Dillard’s had captured a moth still in its cocoon and placed it in a small Mason jar. Slowly wresting himself from the from the cocoon in which he’d undergone his metamorphosis, he began to unfurl his wings to make them both flightworthy and eye-catching—only to find his quarters too cramped to extend them. Within only a few minutes, the lacquer-like coating hardened the wings in their shriveled form, rendering them unalterably useless. Dillard’s last sight of the moth was of him walking the nearby sidewalk—alive but defenseless, functioning but not flourishing.
For weeks now we’ve considered Jesus’ parable of the sower. We’ve said that the fruitfulness Jesus came to manifest in us—godliness working in and through us—requires attentiveness, an appreciation of His encouragement and candor, and a frequent assessment of what is flowing from our heart.
All these requirements for fruitfulness operate on the individual level; they each relate to what we do as individuals because Jesus’ Word has the capacity to bring forth in every individual He chooses the godliness He intends.
However, even though he plants His Word in individual souls, it is to a company of souls He addresses that Word. He calls each disciple to Himself, but He calls them to form a band of disciples.
Each of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10); to Him each must give an account (Hebrews 4:13). Yet each is called to be a member of a Body (Ephesians 3:6), a part of the living God’s temple (2 Corinthians 6:16), a living stone in a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5).
So the fruitful life centered on God’s will for the world assumes both a personal and corporate context for its nurture. Private devotion and community participation are interdependent elements—like a moth’s two wings—of what allows a given individual to yield the thirty, sixty, or hundredfold that Jesus promises. The dual context allows the Lord’s ordained intentions to unfurl in those He’s birthed to new life.
Though our culture militates against the stillness that private devotions require, what it means to seek the mind of God is not a complicated matter; Jesus ably demonstrated a life of prayer and reflection on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. But what are the marks of someone who is rightly related to the community of God? Is not “community” such an overused term now that it has ceased to have any discernible meaning? Can anything begin to diagnose whether we’ve found the center of community life Jesus sought to establish? Consider these questions to begin your diagnosis:
Is there anyone in our Body who prays for you and for whom you pray regularly? Those who know one another well and who recognize that our primary battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12ff), will pray for one another. It’s how we love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34).
Is there anyone with whom you can be so transparent as to share matters of soul (the condition of your relationships, your priorities, your finances)? There are too many “one another” commands in the New Testament to adopt an insular attitude toward the brethren.
Is there anyone with whom you are involved in God’s project of seeing His will be done “on earth as it is in heaven”? The commission to be a blessing unto all nations (Genesis 12:3) is too demanding to fulfill 1) as an individual and 2) as a people only superficially connected. We need the guidance, goading, and grace that comes with community to love the world in the way that commends Christ to it (John 17:21, Matthew 5:16).
These questions don’t exhaust what it means to be in community but they offer a barometer of whether you grasp the place of community in your own personal fruitfulness.
It’s been noted that marriages today have never had to be so dependent on themselves for their own vitality. The culture’s movement towards insularity lays the burden of preserving, protecting, and enriching the marital bond almost entirely on the shoulders of those within the marriage—a phenomenon that must now be roundly challenged if such bonds are to endure. If even marital vitality requires a kind of community for its survival, how much more does one’s own spiritual vitality call for the same?
The life lived privately and corporately devoted to the Lord fills one’s heart with joy and conviction, leading to fruitfulness. It means the difference between a soul shriveled and one that soars.