Acts 22. It wasn’t until I had finished half of my latte that I realized the songs playing in the coffee shop had a similar sound. They were mostly female vocalists, slightly folksy, heavy on the guitar, but with a modern rock flavor. How, I wondered, had someone come up with such a perfect acoustic rock playlist for a morning drinking coffee in the morning in a coffee shop?
Then I heard a soothing voice say: “Sirius XM Coffee House.”
No wonder the music fit. They were playing the coffee house station in a – wait for it – coffee house.
We like it when things fit. We like our belongings to fit neatly on their shelves. We like our clothes to hang nicely in our closets. We like our food to sit just so on our plates. We like our books to fit our worldviews. We like our friends to laugh at just the right places in our jokes. We like family members to get along. We want people to react in a way that makes sense. We want people places and things to belong. We want to belong.
But things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes people don’t make sense. Sometimes we don’t make sense to ourselves. We find ourselves feeling more Fox News than Lite FM. We can feel a little more acid rock while everyone else is NPR. We laugh in the wrong places. We make what we intend as a joke and realize we’ve just hurled a spear. We walk into a room full of people we know and feel like we don’t belong at all. People we once loved sometimes seem like perfect strangers.
Saint Paul here in Acts 22 tells a story of how God melted his heart out of bigotry and made him realize God loves everyone – only to find his listeners react not with joy but with hate. Human reactions don’t always make sense. Paul explained how God taught him that God loves ALL people, not just his chosen people, and his listeners reacted by screaming: “This man is not fit to live.”
It’s a strange turn of phrase. This man is not fit to live. Really? Who IS fit to live? And why do we humans think we can pass judgment on this issue? We shouldn’t, but we do. We pass this kind of judgment quickly without even thinking. We’re especially prone to do it if we lose our temper – and I personally think anger is just a manifestation of hurt. Someone hurts us – and we want to hurt them back. It’s “natural.” As I overheard a man say into his cellphone this morning on Broadway: “never send an email when you’re angry.” It’s good advice. But it made me smile, ruefully. You can guess why.
There is a very real sense in which we are all strangers in a strange land. We search and long for home. “I can’t find my way home,” Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were whining on my ipod this morning. Three homeless people meet and argue every day in a heap of rags outside the entrance to the Writer’s Room. “They have nowhere to go,” a man who worked in the building told me yesterday.
“Yes, they do,” I said. “They go here.” Everyone needs a place to go. Everyone wants a home where they feel they always belong. But most of us spend our days with a vague sense of uneasiness, feeling like we somehow haven’t quite arrived home. We feel like we’re missing something but we’re not sure what.
That’s why there’s all this talk of Roman citizenship in this chapter of Acts. If you want to unpack any verse of the Bible ask a simple question: how does this relate to the cross? This talk of citizenship is evocative of how God came down to offer us all citizenship. But instead of having to buy our citizenship at a great price like the Roman commander, God offers us His own citizenship. It’s like those friends of mine who give each other their place in the New York City marathon – you can run in my stead, they say, because they know how hard it is to get a spot. Every one of us is excluded from citizenship in heaven because the law condemns us. There is not one of us who keeps the law perfectly. Try not coveting. Try putting God before all else. Try loving your neighbor as yourself. If heaven were only for people who followed the law, heaven would be empty of all save God. For only God is good.
So God bought our citizenship for us. He knew we “lived in this world without God and without hope” and He loved us too much to leave us in that state, excluded from the thing our hearts most longed for. Eph. 2. God bought our citizenship “by ending the law.” He satisfied the requirements of the law so that we can go to heaven through his free gift of grace. No one earns their way to heaven. Instead the only way is to have our “sins washed away by calling on the Lord.” Acts 22. God’s gift of salvation falls down on us like “a very bright light from heaven.” The intense light blinds us. It opens our eyes to a whole new Way. It melts us from the inside out, showing us God paved the Way home for us. God was the one true citizen of heaven who was persecuted, hounded and killed to satisfy the requirements of the law, so that we can go to heaven without having to earn our way. We don’t have to try to “be good.” God did it for us.
And when that truth sinks in, we discover that wherever we are is home, after all. It’s coffee house music in every coffee house. We belong to our one true home no matter who excludes us. We are accepted even when our jokes are unacceptable. We run the race set before us even when we’re too tired to get out of bed. We may not be fit to live, but that’s not the standard. We are citizens now. No one can take that away from us. We are members of God’s family. It’s not based on anything we do. It’s irrevocable because it was bought with God’s own body and blood.
So what? What’s the point of all this? It sounds good to say that Jesus is the door to our home, but what does it mean?
It means that the whole world is upheld by what we mistake for weakness. It is upheld by the one who turned the other cheek. Sacrificial love – as opposed to selfish entitlement – lives at the heart of who we are, why we’re here, and how we can become the people we’ve always wanted to be. The point is to dive down deep into the gospel and search with our breath held until we find the love at the heart of it all and come up gasping for air but triumphant. We clasp onto the truth. We press in close. Jesus died to give us a helping hand. Heb 2:16. Is it no wonder we are surprised by joy when we do the same for others? When we offer a helping hand to others, we find our hands are reaching in the direction of the cross. It’s a seemingly left handed Way, but when we try it we discover it’s the only right Way, the true Way, the Way to the home we’ve always wanted but could never find on our own.
by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 11, 2013