“DISCOVERING JESUS: AS FRAGRANCE”
2 Corinthians 2: 14-17
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
February 28, 2016
I was back in my grandmother’s basement the other day. I don’t go there often, but I still go there a time or two every year. It’s not a large room. It’s in Oklahoma, you see, and they just don’t build large basements in that red clay. It had concrete walls on 3 sides and on the fourth was a set of shelves with a little rug on the floor. On those shelves I see the mason jars lined up on the wall full of bread and butter pickles which she had made the previous spring. In front of me is the metal door which led to the crawl space under her house. I don’t go under there very often because it’s scary, and I’m always afraid that I’ll get locked under there and my grandparents won’t know where I am. I turn to the wall on my right but I can’t really see it, I think my grandfather might have staked a small claim in the basement but I just can’t be certain anymore, so I turn back to the solid comfort of the mason jars, the shelving, and the metal door. I know those things are there. They are more solid to me in my mind. And then, just as suddenly as I stepped into the basement I am out, back in my 40 year old body in a world without canned pickles, and without my grandmother.
When I go to my grandmother’s basement, it is not my eyes or tongue or hands that lead me. It is my nose. Every once in a while, you see, I smell her basement. It is the exact fragrance, if you can call it that, of damp floors and dusty corners and tattered cobwebs and that musty little rug. I can’t create the scent, nor can I tell where I will find it, but every once in a while it finds me, and when it does, it leads me back to my childhood and back to that room and back to a day that is gone. Isn’t it funny how a smell can do that? Pictures don’t work in quite the same way, do they? But on occasion our noses will send us into a fit of nostalgia. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because scent and emotion are so closely linked in our brains. Perhaps it is because we have grown accustomed to the images in pictures of days passed, but the scent of those days can really capture us.
In truth, scent is a powerful thing. I remember after my grandmother died my mom would wear her windbreaker when she would go for a walk. My mom said she wore it because it still smelled like my grandma. This is not uncommon. In Lauren Winner’s book, “Wearing God,” upon which this sermon series is based, she talks of a widow who kept all her husband’s clothes in his closet so his smell would permeate their bedroom. An elderly woman in Lincoln did the same. As far as I know the clothes are still there. Fragrance has an incredible emotional power over us and, by and large, we do not control it.
It is no surprise then that Paul uses fragrance as an image for life in Christ. The only surprise is that more Biblical authors did not reference it. Now, I want to be clear for a moment. Paul did not literally mean there was a smell to Jesus, or believing in Jesus. You should not hear this passage and think that what you need is to have a certain smell in order to be a faithful Christian. Quite the contrary. In 2 Corinthians Paul is tapping into some nostalgia. Only a few years prior to his writing, the Roman Emperor Claudius had returned from a successful military campaign and held a triumph in Rome. These were big deals in Roman culture, and Corinth, being a Roman city, would’ve known all about it. Some in the church may even have been in Rome to witness it. We don’t know. But Paul knew that it was common enough for him to use the image in reference to Jesus. And the vanguard of Jesus’ triumph, his grand parade in celebration of victory over death, is fragrance. In fact, Paul writes: you and I spread it in front of Christ as he does his work in the world.
Once Paul has hooked us with nostalgia he teaches us some theology. We are the pleasing aroma to God. For centuries the Jews had sent fragrances God’s way. They had done it through burnt offerings to appease God’s need for atonement. And they had done it through incense to soothe God. And now we do the same thing, who follow Christ. We send the aroma of our faith to God, and this aroma reflects the saving presence of God in the world. Perhaps the aroma is the smell of your husband’s jacket, or your great aunt’s basement, or the springtime breeze which carries the scents of new life. I don’t know. But it is a rich image.
And it works only if it is matched with love. Think of it this way. My grandmother’s basement was no magical place. It could probably feel claustrophobic, and there were certainly sizable spiders down there in the clement months. And yet the smell of that place is powerful. Why? Because it is associated in my mind with my grandmother’s love. The two go hand in hand. It would be a meaningless odor that my mind would likely fail to register if not matched with that history of love which accompanies it in my life. And the same is true for all those nostalgic smells. If they do not evoke memories of love and good days, then they are rendered meaningless. And we would be wise to remember this.
Paul, you see, does not write merely about the lovely fragrance of life which accompanies Jesus but also the foul stench of death. There are only two groups, he writes, those who are being saved and those who are perishing. And the fragrances of the two are distinct. In her book, Winner writes, “what is lovely to those who appreciate the Lord is unlovely to those who do not.” In truth, my friends, our lives will have a fragrance either way, both to the world as we either do or do not seek to follow Christ, and to those whom we know, as we either do or do not love them.
Have you thought about your life? Have you thought about how it will be remembered? Paul’s writing here is an exercise in nostalgia and while most of us are comfortable thinking about our own past, but do we consider how we will be remembered? What fragrances will be associated with us, and will those bring up good memories or bad for those who experience them. The reason we can talk about the fragrance of Christ and his followers in such a way is because it is a sweet smell rooted in the love of God for us, and the response we have to God’s love. Our lives are no different.
If Christ is the fragrance of life and love, then our lives should reflect that, and our lives should overwhelmingly point those who come after us to those central truths in our lives. I think all of us have things we wish we could undo. I think all of us can think of times when we have hurt people we love. I know my grandmother was not perfect. But time has buffed away all the imperfections because I know she loved me. I know that my journey with God has not been perfect thus far, but I also trust that the sweet fragrance of Christ’s love is always wafting through this world, waiting for me to catch a scent of it. And I will, as surely as I will find myself in my grandmother’s basement again soon. And all this is wonderful. But it is also meaningless if my life does not carry more life than death, more love than anger, more fragrance than odor. Lent is the time of year to consider our lives and to think of the ways we have fallen short, but it is also a good time to think about how we want to be remembered. It’s not too late to have a say in that, and it never will be. Amen.