Godly aromas (Lesson 6)

Lesson Six, 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Some smells take us back in time to a moment, a place, a time. Cookies baking takes us back to grandmother’s house. Freshly cut grass may land us back on the lawn playing tag with childhood friends. Some odors attract us. Some repel us. I offered a friend a deviled egg and she said, “No, the smell turns my stomach.”

Smells are particular and distinctive. Nothing is quite like getting a whiff of a little baby’s head. On my first day of chaplaincy training, the strong antiseptic sent me back to being hospitalized at age five.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 that through us the fragrance of Christ is spread. “We are the aroma of God.” This phrase perplexes me. What kind of smell do you imagine that Christians give off? Is it the earthy odor of humus-rich soil ready for a garden or the sharp, eye-watering scent of onions? Is it the pungent perfume of a mass planting of flowers or the tantalizing smell of baking bread? Do our communities of faith stink of decay and bitterness or draw people near with lovely fragrances of invitation and acceptance?

Do you associate God’s love with a smell? In the first church I served, one older woman kept peppermint Life-Savers in her pocketbook. She gave one candy circle to each child in the church. She said, “I want the children to associate the church with a sweet moment.” I think of her whenever I smell and taste a peppermint Life-Saver.

Each week in Richmond, Virginia, communities of worship extend hospitality to homeless people and families. Cots are set up in a fellowship hall for a week and three meals a day provided. Faith communities all around the city provide housing a week at a time as part of our interfaith network of emergency shelter for the homeless. For years one church in my neighborhood has hosted homeless men during the week of Thanksgiving.

At this church, on Thanksgiving morning, 10 to 12 children, men and women roast two turkeys, make a huge vat of mashed potatoes with lots of butter, bake rolls, make salads and cook green beans. Tables are dressed up by the smaller hands. Those who have homes and those who don’t sit down together to eat and chat. The scent of spending time with those homeless men is mixed. Clothes and bodies only washed periodically mix with the aroma of coffee and good food.

There are all kinds of smells associated with Jesus’ ministry: grilled fish, red wine at weddings and Passover, flat-bread baking, meals spiced with garlic and onions. One evening Jesus and his disciples are at the home of Simon the leper (lepers and leprosy were feared, and yet Jesus is there). An unnamed woman comes in and pours an entire jar of perfume costing a year’s salary on his head. The scent of extravagant gratitude and love fill the house and wafts out into the street (see Matthew 26:6-13).

Faithful followers embody God’s presence through kindness, love and reconciliation in small and extravagant ways. In an over-scheduled, fast-paced culture, the lovely aroma of God’s presence and love may be most needed in families. We are all too prone to grab a quick bite at a fast-food restaurant and eat in the car as we rush to sports or piano lessons or a meeting.

I was sitting outside at a Panera Bread restaurant enjoying the sun and the breeze. A mother and her small son sat down at the next table. The mother was agitated.

“Eat,” the mother said to her son as she dialed her cell phone. Angrily, the mother said, “Why weren’t you there to pick up Sam?”

The conversation was heated, and the mother ended by saying, “I don’t want to hear your sorry excuses.”

“Eat,” she said to her son, pushing the soup bowl closer. “Mommy has to go back to work.”

Her son said quietly, “Mommy, I had a good day.” His mother was texting now. “Mommy, Jamie and I played.”

“Eat!” she said, not hearing a word he said.

I remembered how hard it was to be a working mom with a young child and pledged to listen more carefully to my grandsons.

Listening to a child, any child, embodies God’s love in profound ways. Studies show that children who experience regular family meals are more emotionally stable and physically healthy, do better in school and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs as teenagers. Children who hear faith stories and family stories, of both problems and success, are more resilient in facing difficulties of their own.

Spread the aroma of God as persons sent from God, strengthened by the presence of the Holy Spirit.


ROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.