Title: The Pueblo of God
Date: May 16, 2010
Texts: Exod 18:13-26, Ac 1:15-26
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
It’s good to be back here at church with you. As most of you already know, these past two Sundays I was in Dallas, Texas, visiting a Mennonite congregation—Iglesia Menonita Luz del Evangelio, trans. Light of the Gospel Mennonite Church.
Part of what I want to do in my sermon today is share with you what I experienced at that church. But this isn’t just a report about my travels. It’s a message about the gospel, it’s a sermon about the good news expressed through that Hispanic Mennonite congregation on the outskirts of south Dallas. Every church is a place where the gospel is communicated—that’s obvious. But I want us to think about how the gospel is spoken through the body language of the church—through the movements of the body of Christ, the way people get together and worship God and offer their lives as a blessing for the world. The gospel is a bodily reality; it’s a way of life. And the church is the body language of God. We share the Holy Spirit with the world through worship and fellowship, through sharing our lives.
We heard a couple passages from the Bible that are concerned about the form of the people of God, the organization, the assembly, how the people are to be structured. Our passage from Exodus tells us about how Moses organized the people of Israel after they left Egypt. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, suggested a way to divide up the people—groups of thousands, and within those thousands, groups of hundreds, and within those hundreds, groups of fifties and tens (Exod 18:21, 25). Each of these groups was empowered to discern God’s will for themselves—and the cases that could not be resolved at that level were presented to Moses. The shape of the community mattered for their journey to the Promised Land. Life together in the wilderness needed a form, a shape, a way to embody the freedom God gave them. Freedom to worship God came with a form, a way of life.
The passage we heard from Acts follows in the same trajectory. Judas Iscariot abandoned the movement, so they needed another leader to replace him. There was something important about continuing with the structure Jesus established—that there would be twelve apostles to give shape to the rest of the people. So they selected Matthias by casting lots. And a few chapters later, after the Jesus movement picked up speed with the events at Pentecost, we find another structural move for the people of God—we read about this in Acts chapter 6. Seven people were appointed to care for the needs of the community—including Stephen, the early church martyr.
Here’s my point in talking about these two moments in the story of the people of God—the story of the Exodus and the story of Acts. As soon as God sets the people of Israel free from Egypt, they take on a form of life, a way of organizing their common life, a way of living out the good news of God’s redemption. Their freedom is a structured freedom, a way of being together in groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Freedom takes on a form. And the same goes for the people of God in Acts. The movement of Jesus takes on a shape. The freedom of the Spirit becomes a form of life. God creates a way of life, organized in such a way as to care for the people who join the movement of the kingdom. Freedom and form are not opposites. For the people of God, the freedom of Christ takes on a concrete form, with leaders, with strategies for organization, with ways of relating to one another and dealing with conflict and discerning God’s will. And all of this is the flow of the gospel in the world. The flow of the Spirit has a form.
So, now, each congregation, every church drawn together through the Holy Spirit, speaks the good news through its body language—the way its organized, the way it moves in the world, the way people live together as disciples of Jesus. And the same word, Jesus Christ, is spoken through the life of each congregation, although with different accents.
Like I said earlier, I spent some time with a Mennonite church in Dallas—part of the Western District Conference. And they definitely speak the gospel with a different accent, a Spanish one. The congregation is made up of immigrants from mostly Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. They meet together for worship three days a week—Wednesday, Friday, and twice on Sunday. Much of what they do together as a church isn’t that different from most worship services. They sing songs, pray, read passages from the bible, and have sermons.
The most striking part of their worship services, at least for me, was the way they ate together. At their Friday and Sunday church services, worship spilled over into a communal meal—or, I should say, a fiesta. A banquet of tacos and tamales, and juice made from crushed watermelons. We sat and stood outside, eating and talking, sharing our lives together. Around my table I heard conversations about the week at work, about family life, about discerning God’s will in this or that situation. Everyone seemed to linger around, receiving spiritual and physical nourishment from the food and fellowship. These gatherings for worship seemed like the high point of their week—a time for resting in God’s presence with one another. And nobody was in a rush to leave.
I was reminded of the church described in Acts: the early church met together multiple times during the week, and they shared a meal every time they met. Worship and food were tied together, worship and fellowship, praising God and eating and talking. That was also the vision that shaped the early Anabaptists. They met together for food, for communion, for common meals and fellowship, and they met frequently. The gospel took a tangible form; the gospel became a way of life; the gospel created a people, a people who spoke good news through the way they shared their lives together.
The Mennonites at the church in Dallas talk about being “the pueblo of God”; that’s how they describe their way of life, the way the gospel reorganizes their lives into the body of Christ. In the Southwest part of the United States, the Native tribes developed a form of life that the Spanish conquistadors called a “pueblo.” The tribes in that part of the county became known as the pueblo people. A pueblo was a group of dwellings—of pit-houses, of adobe structures—that had an open, common area in the middle. The pueblo was how they organized their lives a band of people, a tribe, living in the desert.
I can see how the church in Dallas is a pueblo. They come together and eat and worship and support one another. Their lives depend on each other. They don’t have very much in terms of property or possessions or job security. So the good news of being a church is that they are a pueblo, a people who Christ has called together to share life, to share the life-giving flow of the Holy Spirit.
I can also see how we are a pueblo. We come together to worship God and let the Holy Spirit flow through our lives, drawing us together into the body of Christ. God’s presence comes to us through the ways we share with one another, the ways we care for each other, the ways we let go of our defenses and become vulnerable—which is what it means to be people of peace, to be people of Christ’s nonviolence.
Through Christ, our lives have become good news for the world. That’s what church is all about. We gather so that we can be transformed by the good news and bear witness to the good news. And that’s why we need members—like Jason and Lisa, who we will welcome as new members in a few minutes. Members are people who commit to sustaining our common lives, people who make sure that church continues to happen. This means sharing the responsibility of logistics—like worship planning, reading scripture, praying, and picking up hymnals after our service. But it also means becoming vulnerable to one another: it means opening up your life to someone else, to someone’s word of concern or gratitude or request for prayer. We call it mutual admonition—the way we care for each other, the way we give and receive Christ’s love. In the church, we become vessels of God’s grace.
All of this draws us back to the One who has shown us grace and love—God’s love for the world, made flesh through Jesus Christ, and made present in the Holy Spirit through our lives, all of us who gather together, through this way of organizing our lives called church, the pueblo of God, as our sisters and brothers in Dallas put it.
Church is the way we spend our lives resting into God’s loving presence for the world. We are a people who take time to let God fill us with his love, which frees us from our sins and transforms us into vessels of God’s love and grace for everyone.