LABELS AND SIGNPOSTS – Woodhill Prison

Who are you; and who am I? We may feel that we know just who we are; but do we? Others may believe that they know all about us; but do they?


In the light of what we feel that we know about ourselves, and about each other; we write mental labels, and stick them on. Once stuck on, for good or ill, such labels are very difficult to remove.


Jesus Christ, who really knew just who people were; didn't go round sticking labels on them. Instead, he set up encouraging signposts, along the journey of life, for them to follow.


For years, hospital consultants have tended to talk about patients; in front of them; as though they were things, and not people. A woman had been mildly ill for years; made yet another hospital visit. The consultant ignored her; read the notes in her file; and talked about her, over her head; just as though she wasn't there. He turned to one of his colleagues, and said: ‘She is a very interesting case’. The woman spoke up, and said: ‘I'm not a 'case', I'm a person’. It is to be hoped that, from then on, he thought of her as a person; with her own feelings; hopes and fears.


Jesus always treated people as persons: respecting their human dignity; and encouraging them to realize the good that lay within them.


I used to help out at a counselling-centre, at Birmingham; where people looked for help, in their various situations. Most counsellors were women. When going on duty, it was good practice to read the notes about the people who had appointments, so as to be as ready as possible, when they called. One evening, expecting a particular man to visit the Centre, I read the notes in his file, and found that the women counsellors had given him various labels, which included: ‘This man is unsociable... unable to communicate ... very badly educated ... cannot express himself .. thick as two planks’.


When the man in question called at the Centre, he shook my hand, and said: ‘Thank God, there is a man on duty tonight!’. He went on to say that he was born in India, but that he had lived in the Middle East for many years. He told me that, in both Indian and Arabian cultures, it was almost unthinkable for a man to be counselled by a woman. So, whenever he had gone to the Centre, and found only women on duty, he had said as little as possible, and had left as soon as he decently could.


He turned out to be a highly-educated man; speaking several European and Asian languages; and a lecturer at a technical college; yet those women claimed to know about him, and had labelled him as ‘badly educated’, and ‘as thick as two planks’. I believe that Jesus would have found time for that man; and would have admired him, and might even have given him some special service to be done.

Some labels we are born to; or naturally come about; male ... female ... old … young ... fit .. unwell ... and so on. Some labels we acquire, or earn; caring mother ... reliable worker ... good mechanic …best friend, and so on, and we are happy with them. But other labels get stuck on us, whether we are happy about them or not; whether they are true or not.


There are few of us who have never been hurt, at some time or other, by a 'label' that someone else stuck on us. And probably just as few of us, who have never stuck a bad 'label', deserved or otherwise, on someone else.


Who are you? Who am I? And who are those other people? Often, we don't really know: not because we are stupid, but because we get confused by the multiplicity of labels, that other people have stuck on us, or that we have stuck on them, and even on ourselves.


Jesus Christ, who was never confused by anything; and who knows just who we are; never went round sticking labels on people. Certainly, he gave plenty of teaching about what was bad and good; and about what was right or wrong; but he never went round condemning people.


As he said: ‘I have come, not to condemn the world, but to save the world’. The Lord Jesus calls us to live our lives, in the way that he did; and gave us quite definite warnings, about not labelling people judgementally; because to do so, is an ugly sin, on the one hand; and a Godless waste of time; energy, and opportunities for good, on the other hand.


As said, three-times already: Jesus never went around sticking labels on people. Instead, he set up something like encouraging signposts for us to follow on the journey of faith; and instructed us to use the now-saved time, energy and opportunities, in helping other spiritual seekers to make the same journey.


One of the truly great 'signposts' is that of forgiveness; a theme which runs throughout scripture, but especially in the New Testament. Forgiveness may, or may not be, found in other directions; but it is, most certainly, continually offered by God; through Jesus Christ. Many a man or woman set off on the journey of faith in the first place, because he or she was inspired by the 'signpost' of 'forgiveness’; which led them on to another one; that of acceptance.


For great numbers of people, life is more than a little rough, tough and bumpy; with acceptance by others, hard to come by; but God's full, loving acceptance of us, as we are; with a view to what we might come to be; is continually offered to us in Christ.


The 'signpost' of acceptance leads us on to another one; that of belonging. Being 'counted-in' by God, was one of the most consistent teachings of Jesus; and not just belonging in a passive sense; that goes little farther than merely being a good idea; but belonging in an active sense; with real purpose and blessing to it.


Just about every person in the world, has a real need to feel accepted, and to have a sense of belonging, in a meaningful, purposeful way. God, who is the ultimate realist and psychologist, first sets up a 'signpost' which strongly implies that forgiveness is not an end in itself; but points in the direction where other blessings are to be found. Then he encourages us to move on. As we do so: the 'signpost' of acceptance, does two things. It confirms the rightness of the direction being taken, and it begins to meet a powerful, basic, human need.


With acceptance established; and the need of belonging, beginning to be met; yet another need comes into view; that of sharing. Sharing is a beautiful thing, because, by its very nature, it gives no place to selfishness; and because, at its best, true sharing is an expression of the highest form of love. We believe this to be proved by the fact that God, in Christ, shared something of himself with needy humanity, to the point of death, at the Cross. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends’, said Jesus; and he went on to say that those who follow him, and seek to obey his will of them, are his friends.


To them, Jesus says: ‘Behold, I am with you, to the close of the age’, which he proves, by his continuing spiritual presence; through which he shares something of his Godly qualities and attributes with them.


Jesus not only gives them a share in something of his divine nature; but also in his ongoing, Christly ministries. In various ways; especially in his parables; Jesus not only calls such people friends, but also co-workers.


Those who are co-workers with Christ, rapidly move from passive belief, into active faith. By their very experience of the Lord, they begin to look; see, and know; as Christ himself looks, and sees and knows. With such enhanced spiritual understanding, they realize that those who judge and condemn, through sticking labels on others, are too busy to notice God’s encouraging signposts.


With enhanced spiritual vision, they see that we must never treat each other in that way; and, instead, act in a Christ-like manner; and refrain from sticking labels on anyone. The more Christ-like the manner, the more sense the spiritual signposts make; and the more likely we become, to follow their lead; through forgiveness, and on to acceptance, belonging, place, purpose and sharing.


The more that we follow the way that is set before us; the more we will not only know, and love, ourselves; and each other; but also recognize the good labels that God himself places on us; seeker-after-truth; believer; Christian; redeemed of the Lord. Amen.