Recently I have begun one of life’s most irritating tasks: packing. As I prepare to move into my new house (at some point or another eventually!) I have spent a lot of time packing and labeling boxes. Kitchen: Fragile. Kitchen: Junk Drawer. Books: Seminary. Books: HEAVY! Craft Supplies. There are some boxes on which I want to simply write: STUFF!
I like labeling things and I think we all do in some ways. Maybe not everyone likes to have their whole lives divided neatly into labeled file folders, but I would guess that most of us find ourselves labeling things, at least in our minds. It is not just the office supply geeks or organizing nuts among us. The truth is, it is probably 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 learn and retain information. 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 ‘lion’ or ‘wasp’.
Where would we be without labels like street signs? Stop. No Parking. One Way. Labels on medications: do not drive while using this medication. Take with food. For external use only. How about cleaning products? Do not spray towards face. If swallowed, contact poison control. And we can’t forget food labels. Best used before January 1992. Remove plastic before placing on baking sheet. And of course clothing. Dry clean only. Lay flat to dry. Wash with like colors.
It is our instinct to label and without them, life could get really complicated really fast. However, labels can also be hurtful and harmful things. They can be used to separate and exclude, pass judgment and control our perception of 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 dare not speak from the pulpit. The ugly and hate-filled labels that people spit at one another just because they look different or come from the wrong places, speak the wrong language or speak a language differently.
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. And, 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 you go over and over in your mind. 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 An Idiot. I Am Unwanted. I Am Fat. I Am Scrawny. I Am Worthless. I Am A Bully. I Am A Sinner.
What’s the worst label you’ve ever put on someone else? We all do it. You Are So Embarrassing. You Are Not Worth My Time. You Are Weak. You Are Unforgiveable. You Are A Disappointment. You Are Worthless. You Are Invisible. They are all glued on with anger and resentment, which is some pretty sticky stuff. 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 text today from the gospel of John, 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, even more good news, he’ll come back and get them! This conjures up images for me 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.’ Confusing language. 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 Messiah. 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 Keystone. The Word of God. My Lord and My God. To just name a few.
Sometimes it is easy to think that, because of all the 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 the sad reality is that they do, then they become part of our identity. They become who we believe we are; who we must be. And the glue on those labels is very sticky.
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.
Above all other labels, behind and smack on top of all other labels is this one: Child of God. Regardless of what other labels we are given or stick on ourselves and others, this is the one we wear for the whole of our lives until Jesus comes to take us to the Father’s house and it says, “Hello, my name is: Child of God.” No other label is truer of who we are. In comparison to this, no other label matters.
So today, imagine you are wearing a nametag that says: Hello, My Name Is Child Of God. In fact, imagine everyone else is wearing one, too, and know that no matter what else or who else has labeled you in the past, this one, the one given to each of us by the one who is The Way the Truth and the Life, is the only one that matters.