What’s that smell? (part 1)

There are certain aromas that I love: sizzling bacon, though I hardly ever eat it; freshly brewed coffee, though I seldom drink it (my wife has wondered why coffee doesn’t taste as good as it smells).  Realtors will sometimes suggest baking bread or cookies before showing a property, creating emotionally inviting aromas that make a house seem more like a home.

Photo by Jenny Erickson
Photo by Jenny Erickson

And then, of course, there are the smells (which for propriety’s sake, shall go unnamed) that cause us to wrinkle up our noses in disgust.  Those who study the biology of sensation and emotion suggest that the disgust reaction is our body’s automatic way of narrowing the nasal passages to keep out noxious airborne particles.

Who knew our noses were so smart?

Smells trigger associations and emotions of which we may not even be aware.  That fact forms an imaginative backdrop to an interesting metaphor Paul uses for the Christian life:

But thank God, who is always leading us around through Christ as if we were in a parade.  He releases the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere through us.  We smell like the aroma of Christ’s offering to God, both to those who are being saved and to those who are on the road to destruction.  We smell like a contagious dead person to those who are dying, but we smell like the fountain of life to those who are being saved.  (2 Cor 2:14-16, CEB)

Paul’s overarching image of a parade recalls the triumphal processions of conquering generals, in which the spoils of war were displayed with full pomp and circumstance — including the poor captives taken from among the vanquished people groups.  Burning incense would be strewn along the way, leaving a lingering reminder of the parade’s passing.  Depending on whose side you were on, that aroma would carry with it a sense of victory and celebration, or of defeat and fear.

It’s important to note that although Paul doesn’t say it directly, when he speaks of being led around by Christ in the parade, he doesn’t mean that he’s marching proudly as one of the victors — rather, he sees himself as one of the captives (see, for example, how the updated NIV renders this passage compared to the original NIV).  I would guess that most of us, at first glance at least, would read ourselves into the “winning” side of the imagery.  But with these words, Paul is launching a long explanation of what it truly means to be an apostle of Jesus: not a display of one’s own superior strength, but of the strength of God displayed through our weakness.

That probably doesn’t sound like much of a victory.

But Paul must get this point across to the Corinthians, for they are being influenced by false teachers who are casting doubt on Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle, partly on the premise that one who has the favor of God shouldn’t suffer as he does.  For Paul, it’s not a personal matter of salvaging his reputation; he knows that if the Corinthians swallow such a distortion of the gospel, they are no longer following the crucified Jesus.

But what might it mean to be the “fragrance” or “aroma” of Christ?  More on that in the next post.