We’re wired to see labels. Not the kind on our clothes, but the distinctions we see between ourselves and others. For example: Black, white, short, tall. Chubby cheeks, husky, slim, daddy’s girl, momma’s boy.
As we get older people start assigning us labels: jock, nerd, computer geek, life of the party, druggies, good little church kid. Believe it or not, it doesn’t get too much better when you get older. The only change is that they’re assigned on a much grander scale: liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, pro-life, pro-choice, even Nazarene, Baptist, Catholic, or Assemblies of God.
One of the things that I’m learning about labels is that they dehumanize us. Instead of taking the time to genuinely know someone, labels cut off the flow of relationship before they even get started. Labels assign value to a person based solely upon perception, stereotype and prejudice.
Let me just state the obvious: this is not what God intended. Let me take you to a couple of passages that I’ve been reflecting on this week. The first is in Genesis, the second is in Galatians.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 NIV)
So this passage is crucial for us to understand if we’re going to understand what it means to be human. Before there was original sin, mankind (male and female) was created with original righteousness. Theologians talk a lot about what it means for us to have been created in God’s image, but I wonder if part of it refers to the ability to truly know a person and and be known by them.
This seems to be one of the most tragic of consequences of the Fall of humankind. We began to take up fig leaves and make coverings for ourselves. I don’t know if you’ve seen a fig leaf or not, but they’d be just about as comfortable to wear as the 3 inch thorn bushes I saw in Kenya. Those thorns remind me a lot of the labels we have given and received. They hurt and penetrate deeply. They keep others at a manageable distance. Don’t get too close. I don’t know if I can trust you. After all, you’re a (insert label). And so we continue to hide from the healing grace of God that comes through the practice of authentic community.
The good news is that the story doesn’t stop here. In Galatians 3 we find this amazing revelation:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28 NIV)
There’s a lot of labels mentioned in this passage, a lot of things that had the potential to shipwreck those early believer’s and the early church. But Paul casts all the labels aside and says, “None of that matters. You are one in Christ Jesus.”
One of the things I’ve learned in my church history readings is that the early church was a counter-cultural force in society not just because they claimed to follow a resurrected Messiah, but because of the radical, counter-cultural way they viewed each other and lived out their faith:
- Women were not looked at as property, but as equal in the eyes of God and given full access to every role in the church…including pastor/preacher.
- Slaves were looked at as brothers and sisters in Christ, and many (including Philemon) were given their freedom.
- Orphans and widows and strangers were looked at as an opportunity to practice pure and faultless religion, not an excessive burden.
During my trip to Kenya I had the amazing opportunity to be with brothers and sisters in Christ. But I’ve got to be honest, one of the reasons I wanted to come to Kenya was to serve “the least of these”. And while in a strictly financial sense that may be true, during my trip I came to grips with the fact that I had put a label on these brothers and sisters.
The reality that I’ve come to embrace is that I have been the least of these in terms of the Kingdom, for our Kenyan brothers and sisters have been the hands and feet of Jesus to me, revealing my need and ministering God’s grace in abundance. The true reality of the situation is that, spiritually, I was the “least of these” and I was the one who needed someone to reach in and minister to my heart and my need. And in their ministry to me, I’ve discovered just how rich the faith, love and grace of the Kenyan people is. I needed my eyes to be opened and the Holy Spirit graciously did so through a group who cannot be defined by any other label than brothers and sisters in Christ.
So here’s some take home. How are you going to choose to see and interact with people? Will you allow labels to get in the way of you knowing others and being known? Will you allow stereotypes and perception and prejudice to keep you from ministering to others? You might just find that the gift of God’s grace comes to you in different shapes and sizes than you expect.
Can you imagine what might happen if we started losing the labels that we associate with certain people? Can you imagine what might happen if we began to actually live out the truth that in Christ there are no dividing walls?
We might just begin to see the image of God.