Unlikely Lutherans

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18 

I was at the Lutheran retreat center Holden Village, watching the homegrown 4th of July parade. Among the kids pulling wagons, homemade floats, and the volunteer fire brigade was a woman with jet black hair, dark red lipstick, and sleeve tattoos covering both arms. She was with the Old Testament teaching professor I had been enjoying all week, and the two of them were singing a parody of “Lift High the Cross” about crabby Lutherans

We are so cross…


As I observed people greeting the tattooed woman, I started to realize she was a known person—a speaker for the coming week. Then I learned her name: Nadia Bolz-Weber. It didn’t mean anything to me at the time, but since then Nadia has made a big impact. She’s on the international lecture circuit, greeted like a rock star at the national youth gatherings. She’s won story slam competitions and authored books. In addition to all that, she’s the founding pastor of House of All Saints and Sinners Lutheran Church in Denver, CO.


I have heard Nadia speak, read her books and appreciated her work. And so I am a little ashamed to say that I was a bit shocked by her appearance that first day. With her black clothing, tattoos and raucous behavior, she didn’t seem to fit in to the wholesome crowd of retreat-going families. She didn’t seem like a likely Lutheran.


I guess I am in good company for making such judgments, because we have a similar story in our first lesson today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Our passage opens with the surprising news that Gentiles had accepted the word of God about Jesus. The first Christians were all Jewish, just like Jesus, so everyone figured that you had to become Jewish to follow Jesus. Their reaction to the news that Peter was working with non-Jews was, “Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?” The underlying assumption was that these sorts of people just weren’t a fit. You can tell by the way they talked about Gentiles as ‘uncircumcised.’ Uncircumcised was code language for ‘Not included in the promises of God,’ And ‘Not one of us.’ These folks seemed as unlikely converts as Nadia Bolz-Weber seemed an unlikely Lutheran to me.


But Peter had a good rationale. Our lesson picks up with his recounting of how he got beyond his assumptions of this Gentile Cornelius. It all started with prayer. During one of his daily meditations, Peter had an unusual experience: he fell into a trance, and had a strange vision that all the animals forbidden for Jews to eat came down out of heaven in front of him. A voice said, “Get up, kill and eat.” Of course, Peter being a faithful Jew followed the dietary laws, and refused. But the voice said, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This happened three times.


But what was even stranger, was that another man had a vision–this time a non-Jew, a commander in the roman army. His name was Cornelius. An angel appeared to him to say that he should invite a man he’d never met before to his house and listen to his message. That man was, of course, Peter. So Cornelius sent three of his servants to go look for Peter. The servants found Peter just at the moment he came out of his trance. They told him Cornelius’ story and asked him to come with them to their Master’s house.


When Peter arrived and told Cornelius about Jesus, the most surprising thing happened: Cornelius was filled with the Holy Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples at Pentecost! Peter was astounded–Here was a Gentile, a total outsider, and a leader in the occupying army, at that — clearly exhibiting God’s power!

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter cried out.


In our passage for today, we hear Peter telling his story of his dream and Cornelius. And then he says, “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 
Peter saw that God’s salvation in Jesus was not just for his own people, not just for people he thought fit the category; it was for all people, even the most unlikely candidates.


If we are honest with ourselves, there are probably a lot of people we might put into the Unlikely Believer category. Who might it be for you? 

  • Would it be someone like Nadia who just doesn’t look like most folks in the church?
  • A person with a past?
  • Maybe its about worship culture, whether you are looking for quiet reverence
  • Or exuberant praise.
  • Maybe it’s a health status or a political opinion that just doesn’t seem to fit.

Who would you be most surprised to see in church? Who is the most unlikely Lutheran to you?


Peter was able to embrace these unlikely believers because he remembered Jesus. He remembered that the Holy Spirit is from Jesus, and therefore was able to recognize God’s work among this unlikely group of people. Despite his first impressions and stereotypes, Peter was able to expand his vision of who God chooses and what the community of faith would look like.


What might happen if we at Epiphany tuned into our prayer lives that way? Who might God reveal has the workings of the Holy Spirit in their lives? What unlikely believers might we be blessed to know? Perhaps we’d see the beautiful serendipity that led the Lord to welcome us, the Unlikely Lutherans that we are.


It really is an awesome message today: God’s plan includes everyone, ‘to the ends of the earth,’ Luke says. Whatever your past, whatever your look, whatever your age or ability, no matter your political leanings or family dynamic or whom you love; once you are touched by the waters of baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit, you are a part of this unusual band of believers, just as you are.


So, my Unlikely Lutherans, let’s take a page out of Peter’s book. Let’s pray about just whom God wants us to notice and see. Because where the Spirit’s gifts are landing is just where God wants us to be. 

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