Labels are common and necessary in some parts of our life. For instance, when shopping for food or medicine, reading the label is important to know what the contents of the packaging are. However, labels can be harmful when they are misapplied. And when we label people, we often misapply.
On Sunday, I intentionally labeled myself a sinner. As the picture shows, I did not do this verbally, I did it physically. I did it in conjunction with teaching about the story of Jesus telling of the Good Samaritan. My sermon notes can be found here if you want the details of my approach for the day.
The truth is that we have all been labeled. Likewise, we have all labeled others. Some labels are meant to be harmless such as those we use with our families. Labels such as son, daughter, brother, sister, mom, dad, etc., are meant to be harmless, yet for some who live in broken families (which is a label!), these terms can be offensive. For instance, many people struggle with the term “Father” for God because of how their human father behaved or treated them.
But some labels are not helpful at all. Of course, racial slurs come to mind, but so do statements about people with disabilities of various kinds, people who live in certain areas of a town (or the country or world, for that matter), people who affiliate with different political parties, etc. All of these labels are meant as a means of separating ourselves (and how we are labeled) from the group we label.
The problem is that this is not biblical. Yes, identifying characteristics are real. For instance, I am a white male. Those are facts. And when I travel to Africa, I am called mzungu. I do not take that as offensive. It is simply a description of my color (particularly compared to the Africans who are very dark). And in Kenya, for instance, the natives are proud to be black as it is one of the colors of their flag, and is that way because of their skin color.
But words used as labels can become derogatory. And that is where the problems of labeling others begin. To look at someone and immediately think negatively of them because of how we label them is a sin. This phenomenon is so prevalent in our culture today whether the context is political, religious, or some other matter. Undoubtedly people have differences of beliefs, but that does not have to mean that we hate someone for thinking differently.
And that is ultimately where labeling others will lead. As I said in my sermon, it is difficult to love others whom we label. It is equally difficult to label someone whom we love.
When we label others, we may be wrong. Just as the story of the Good Samaritan shows us, the good (the priest and the Levite) did not do what was good whereas the bad (the Samaritan) did.
And that is why I wore the t-shirt. Yes, I am a sinner. But if that is how others label me, it misses an important distinction. Because although I am a sinner, I am saved by grace. The problem is that many of us cannot see past the original label we place on others. And to make this lesson apparent, I had the bottom of my t-shirt tucked into my jeans so that the words “saved by grace” could not be seen until the end of the service.
The question I asked the congregation before revealing the words on the bottom of the shirt was “Would you want to be seen with me labeled as a sinner?” A similar question is pertinent for all of us. Would we want to be seen associating with those whom we have labeled in a negative way?
Remember, it is difficult to love others whom we label. But it is equally difficult to label someone whom we love.
And, if you wear the label as one who follows Christ, you are to love.
So, whom have you labeled who you now need to love?