You can tell a lot about presence with the sense of smell. Like the smell of a roasting turkey letting you know that a great Christmas dinner is on the way. Or the time a horrible smell alerted me to the presence of a mouse that had wandered into a live trap and died. I hadn’t put bait in it so didn’t expect to catch anything. The poor mouse would still be there if the smell had not given away its presence. The Bible tells us that we as Christians ought to smell:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 2 Corinthians 2:14-16
We are the “aroma of Christ.” In other words, through our presence people ought to be able to tell that Christ is present. When a Christian is near, people should “smell,” or be aware of, the presence of God. But do they? Sometimes they might smell something else entirely.
I am reminded of a debate recently which touched on the topic “Was Hitler a Christian?” If you point to his family of origin, and/or to his denominational affiliation you may answer “yes.” However, if you look to his track record of picking up a cross and following Jesus in the way of sacrificial love, grace, and forgiveness, then you would answer “no.” Whatever your answer, it is obvious that Hitler did not spread “in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing [Jesus].” He was not “the aroma of Christ to God” or to anyone else for that matter. Instead he left behind a terrible stench from a form of Social Darwinism.
Never mind Hitler, what about us? Here is a good New Year’s resolution: To smell better. To be so Spirit filled and centred on Jesus that the presence of God is palpable.
We are the “aroma of Christ to God.” Here the writer, the apostle Paul, is alluding to the living of his life as a sacrifice to God, with an aroma that would be pleasing to Him. We can think here of these other words of Paul:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2
When our lives are conformed to this world then the aroma of our sacrifice is rotten to God. Here is another good New Year’s resolution: To be a sweet smelling sacrifice to God, not conformed to the world, but changed by God Himself.
We are “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” We will understand this better if we observe the mixing of metaphors that goes in this passage. In verse 14 it sounds like we are led as a band of victors: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” However, scholars point out that this “triumphal procession” is not a parade of victors, but captives. This is in reference to celebrations in Rome in honour of conquering generals. The captives would be led through Rome, often to their execution. So does Paul have in mind here the idea of being a conqueror? Some Bible scholars point rather to the idea that Paul sees himself as surrendered fully to Christ. Though sin once made him an enemy of God, reconciliation was offered by God. It is a surrendered life that “spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” In contrast, we can only spread our own fragrance if we live a self centred life. Here is another good New Year’s resolution: To be surrendered to Christ.
But what about the aroma “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing”? There would be a lot of incense burned at Roman celebrations including the triumphal procession. No matter whether the aroma of the incense was pleasing or not, it would be a welcome smell to the conquering people, but will be the smell of death to the conquered. Here the metaphor changes as the Christian becomes the incense. We become the aroma of Christ that elicits a response from the world. To some we will be “a fragrance from death to death,” and to others we will be “a fragrance from life to life.” The presence of God being palpable does not necessarily mean that Christianity will be palatable. The one who rejects God will find the fragrance of Christ to be objectionable as he or she continues life a captive to someone other than Christ. Of course, anyone, at any time, can join Christ’s triumphal procession in a life surrendered to God.
Strong smells always elicit a response. We can think of a turkey dinner or a skunk. The message of Jesus will elicit a response. Here is a good New Year’s resolution: To smell so strongly of Christ, that we elicit a response. If no one ever asks us about our faith in Jesus, perhaps we are not smelly enough?
Our passage ends with a great question: “Who is sufficient for these things?” The answer is no one, at least not on our own. Just as Paul depended on the presence of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in being the aroma of Christ, so can we.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21
My family and I wish you a Happy 2017.
(All scripture references are from the NRSV)