This week I purchased a label maker. It’s pretty fancy, too! I remember the old fashioned label makers of my youth with plastic tape and a little wheel you spun around to the right letter and then you’d squeeze to make the white imprint of the letter on the tape. Not so with this! There’s a keyboard and you can choose different size type and different colored tape and it even has a built in cutter. I believe it is, without reservation, one of the coolest office supply items I’ve purchased in a while. And that’s saying something because I love office supplies.
I got it so that I could more easily label file folders at home and at work, but I also used it to label the shelves in the newly re-organized supply closet at the church. The labels for the Fellowship Committee items, like table cloths and flatware, have little designs on them and the ones for the Office Supplies have a little formal outline. I now want to label everything I see! It’s awesome.
We like to label things. It is not just the office supply geeks or organizing nuts among us. It is human nature to categorize and label things so that we may better understand them. This really isn’t a bad thing. When we see a robin, we label it ‘bird’ in our minds. We learn that the label ‘bird’ means feathers, bill, wings, funny looking feet, and some other odd things. So, when we see another creature that is labeled ‘bird’ we can skip over learning some things about it because there are givens in the label. When we see a crow, which is also labeled ‘bird’ in our minds, we can assume it has those same characteristics, give or take a bit, as the other birds. Saves time. In fact, it is a big part of how we humans learn and retain information: categorizing and labeling. This also saves time when it comes to basic survival. If an animal is labeled ‘bird’ in our mind, then we do not have to be as worried as we would if it were labeled something like ‘snake’ or ‘shark’.
Labels can also be hurtful and harmful things. They can be words into which we pour our hate and anger. Labels like the prisoner number tattoos from the Nazi concentration camps. Labels that cruel children give to one another. I remember little notes that mean kids would put on the desk of a chubby little girl in their class that said things like ‘fatty’ and ‘blimpy’. The graffiti labels on a boy’s locker that said words I do not have the heart to repeat. The ugly and hate-filled labels that people spit at one another just because they look different.
At some time or another in our lives, we have all borne a label like these. At some time or another, we have all labeled someone else, too.
Jesus definitely wore labels in his life. Reject. Heretic. Outcast. One Who Eats With Sinners. One Of Them. Friend of Prostitute. Blasphemer. Hated. Despised. And, at the end, his cross bore the label: King of the Jews.
If Jesus took on our sins and brokenness, which he did, then he took all our labels, too. What is the worst label you’ve ever worn? What’s that awful thing that someone has called you? You know the one I mean. The one that starts with I Am and ends with something you are ashamed of. That label that you carry around with you; that label over your head that you cannot get rid of.
I Am Stupid. I Am Ugly. I Am Repulsive. I Am Forgotten. I Am Worthless. I Am A Bully.
What’s the worst label you’ve ever put on someone else? We all do it.
You Are Embarrassing. You Are Unlovable. You Are Weak. You Are Unforgiveable. You Are A Disappointment.
They are all glued on with anger and resentment. But that glue is nothing to Jesus, and he takes all of them, every last one, and puts them on himself as he climbs upon the cross.
In the John text for this Sunday (14:1-14) we hear Jesus telling the disciples about the Father’s house; the place he is going that they cannot yet go. Yet it is there that Jesus tells them he will prepare a place for them and he’ll come back and get them. For me this conjures up images of Jesus going through the Father’s great home and putting labels on different rooms for each of them. For each of us. There is a place there for us—a special place set aside and labeled for us. Where he is, there we may also be.
The disciples are confused by what Jesus is saying. Where is he going? Do they know the way or not? They say they do not know how to go wherever it is that Jesus is going, but Jesus tells them, ‘if you know me, you know the way because I am the way.’ Philip finally sort-of throws up his hands and says, ‘ok, I’d be happy if you could just show us the Father.’ Jesus tells him that if he has seen him he has seen the Father because he is in the Father and the Father is in him. It is almost as if Jesus is pointing to a label over his head that says, “Hello, my name is: God”.
In this text from John, we also hear one of the most well-known labels of Jesus: I am the way the truth and the life. There are tons of others as well: The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and End. The Bread of Life. The Good Shepherd. The Deliverer. The Redeemer. The Firstborn From the Dead. The Gate. The Image Of The Invisible God. The King of Kings. The Light Of The World. Immanuel God With Us. Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The Son of God and Son of Man, The Resurrection and The Life. The Cornerstone. The Word of God. My Lord and My God. To just name a few.
Sometimes it is easy to think that, because of all those labels we bear, we are lumped into one giant category labeled by God as Unwanted. If labels identify us as surely as ‘bird’ identifies a winged creature, and they do, then they become part of our identity. They become who we believe we are, who we must be. But the scriptures teach us that Jesus takes all of that from us. He takes away all the sin of the world, both the things we do and the things done to us, and makes all things new. He gives us each a new label.
In our congregation next week we will all bear witness to God’s precious label for us. Right there in the baptismal font, God will come down and claim another as his own. The child will be labeled…marked with the cross of Christ forever. Sealed forever by the Holy Spirit as a child of God. The label he will wear for the rest of his life until Jesus comes to take him and us to the Father’s house says, “Hello, my name is: Child of God.” No other label is truer of who we are. No other label matters.