14 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? 17 For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.2 Corinthians 2:14-17
A key idea or mental image I want to explore in this post deals with our sense of smell. Paul argues in this portion of chapter 2 of 2 Corinthians that a life conformed to Christ is fragrant in its holiness. But what does holy ‘smell’ like? What do holy ‘smells’ have to do with knowing Jesus?
Beyond the utter reliance most of us have on our visual sense, the combination of touch, taste, smell, and hear is nuanced for each individual. For some, touch is a dominant sense rather than hearing, while for others, their hearing is acute, but they have no future as a taste tester.
For me, smelling ranks right up there with tasting. I guess it makes sense; I’ve always enjoyed a good meal. There were always a series of smells that stuck out to me. Though I’m not really a beach person, I have to say that I love the smell of the ocean. The musk of fish and salt swirl in the wind to bring a freshness you’ll find nowhere else. I also love the smell of cut grass, a well prepared meal, and freshly cut and sanded wood.
There is also a world of smells that crinkle my nose. Pig farms; oh man, do I hate pig farms! They smell like sultry summer days in the nowhere I grew up. Sweaty dirty laundry is pretty rank, as well. I associate that smell with the labor of doing the laundry. The worst, of course, is the smell of garbage. When I lived in the New York metro area, I’d go into the city and walk past dumpsters. That smell comes with rats the size of small dogs.
I go on about smells because smell, as a sense, has associated with it a whole complex of memories and expectations. If you smell fresh baked apple pie, your mouth waters, and your stomach grumbles. If you smell garbage, you are not only repulsed, but you are also alarmed. The smell of rot engages your sympathetic nervous system to begin releasing adrenaline and cortisol so that you are alert to the potential danger.
So what would a Messiah shaped life, conformed to the love of God, smell like, exactly, if we could think about it that way. Would it smell like triumph? Would it be laced with hints of human praise? Wealth? Prosperity? Teen spirit? (Shout out to all you Nirvana fans!)
Seriously though, in this three-verse passage of 2 Corinthians 2, Paul reformulates much of what he’s talked about in the verses leading up to this. From a certain vantage point, the community in Corinth has looked upon Paul’s change of plans, his lack of rhetorical polish in-person, and the series of defeats and humiliations he has suffered leading up to this letter, and they see in it all the signs of failure and weakness – at least as far as the world tends to recognize these things. If Paul jailed, beaten, and broken were a smell, it’s probably not an appealing one.
However, Paul sees a triumph in all that he and his brothers and sisters have suffered for the name of Christ. In fact, he uses the word “triumphal procession” in verse 14, which comes from the Greek triambos, or the procession of religious worshippers on the way to a festival, or a conquering king returning to his city who must put the spoils of war on display and offers sacrifices from the victims of his conquest. In the sufferings of the believer for the sake of witness to the testimony of the lordship of Jesus, we share in his sufferings, as well as his final victory.
When we are united to Christ through such sufferings, we come to know him, as verse 14 puts it, and in knowing him, we start to smell as he smelled: a willing, loving, self-giving sacrifice for the sake of the reconciliation of the world. This smell, however, smells like death and defeat to a world keyed in on the powers of sin and death, as Paul tells us in verse 16. It is right that those who have not been united by faith to the Lord Jesus see in Christians a humiliation and defeat of the self, of the ego, and all the aspirations of power and domination that come with it.
However, for those who are united to Christ by faith, this smell of death has now become the smell of life, new life, transformed live; we reek of new creation! We find in the rejected one the key to our hopes and purposes. In his cross and resurrection, we have been given access to the Father; we are now free to become fully human.
As full humans, all our senses and sensibilities are transformed. What was once appealing to us is now, for lack of a better description, a stinky pile of garbage. Paul will play with just this idea Philippians 3:8 when he says that he counts all things as rubbish next to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. Actually, the word he uses is skubala, or human waste. New creation looks upon the old and sees it, smells it for what it is: muck that needs renewal and transformation.
This means that we believers are presented with both a challenge and an opportunity. Let’s just be frank: we’re always going to look like odd ducks to the outside world. We worship a crucified Messiah for goodness’ sake! Let’s not sugarcoat it, and let’s not pretend it’s anything other than what it is: abhorrent to the wisdom of the world that values power and prestige.
Yet, it is in the challenge that the opportunity arises. You see, death eventually reeks; corpses eventually begin to smell really bad. For a world under the lock and key of the powers of sin and death, a moment will come for everyone when it will dawn on them that there has to be more to life than this; there has to be a purpose that transcends the perennial tragedy of life.
It is here that our peculiar smell, so to speak, really shines. We smell of the one who went into and stepped outside the other side of death, and showed us not only his greatness, but made a way for us to shake off the chains of the old so that we might be clothed with the new.