Summary: A challenge to Christ-like living; considering the ramifications of our behaviour to our witness
"Smell," said Helen Keller, "is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start to awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away."
Smell is the sense that reaches deeply and quickly into our emotional center to evoke feelings and memories of our past. The smell of roast beef and memories of leisurely Sunday afternoons with the family. The smell of an aftershave like that your ex-boyfriend used to wear.
When was the last time you paused and took notice of an aroma? When did a certain scent evoke nostalgia by transporting you to that specific experience? What has been known implicitly for hundreds, if not thousands of years, is just now beginning to be explored by scientists throughout the world. They are starting to research what perfume industry experts certainly know and work to their full advantage.
Odor is powerful.
The human nose can distinguish around 10,000 different aromas. As they reach us, some of these smells can have a significant effect on us. Lose your ability to smell and your well-being is significantly hampered. Just ask an anosmic (someone who has lost some or all of their sense of smell). There are suggestions that smell can influence mood, memory, emotions, mate choice, the immune system and the endocrine system (hormones). We can communicate by smell - without knowing it. In fact the sense of smell could be said to be at the mind-body interface.
Tonight we’re going to "think about stink."
Not, perhaps, from the perspective of a 21st century aromatherapist, but more from the vantage point of a 1st century resident in the Roman empire. One setting where they would have experienced the power of aroma in a particular manner was during victory parades.
As long as there have been battles and wars, as long as there have been conquerors and the vanquished, there have been parades.
The Roman Empire was no exception. After warfare, the victorious general, together with his troops, would return home to a victory parade. They, together with some spoils and prisoners of war, would march through the city. Jubilant crowds would cheer them on. A large banquet would be served.
Depending on the time and place it would look somewhat different. But the basic pattern was generally the same.
And, in virtually all cases, the festivities were enhanced by the spreading of large amounts of flower petals where available. As the people crushed them, their smell would fill the air.
Others would burn large quantities of incense. The perfumed odors would spread throughout the city and everyone would be aware of what was happening. Even for those not present their day would be brightened by the aromas wafting into their homes and businesses.
It was a celebration time. With smells being a very intentional part of the whole affair, designed to build the mood and enhance the festivities.
The only ones who didn’t celebrate would be political adversaries of the conquering general. They would just as soon he not get the attention. They weren’t thrilled by the aroma of incense and flowers. Or - if you happened to be from the nation conquered - the fragrance, the sights, the sounds were downright heartbreaking, a reminder of what you have lost.
Victory parades, with perfume in the air. That’s the image in the mind of the apostle Paul as he writes the words we’re about to read. They will only be a few short words, words inserted in a longer defense that Paul is giving of his ministry. He’s been having a tough time, facing challenges from some upstart preachers who have wandered into town making rather brash claims about themselves, trash talking Paul and his colleagues. What you have in the opening pages of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s come back, his defense.
And then, right in the middle of that defense he does something which he has a rather bad habit of doing - interrupts his train of though and heads off on a tangent. He’d have made a rather poor school teacher. It’s always interesting to hear school children announce rather victoriously, "Yep, we got Mr. Smith distracted. In the middle of history class he began to talk about how to build campfires. Took up the whole period!" I have this feeling that if Paul was their teacher, the kids would be able to head home with such a triumphant statement just about every day.
Paul gets off on a tangent. He bursts into praise for the Corinthian believers. No matter how difficult things were personally, there was something deeper which was positive, and Paul celebrates it. We’ll read those words of celebration. Words that are built around the picture of the sweet smelling Roman victory parade.