Smelling Your Way Into the Kingdom of God

Out at the prison we've been in the book of 2 Corinthians. 

If 1 Corinthians is about conflict within the church, 2 Corinthians is about a conflict between Paul and the church. In much of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending both himself and his ministry in contrast to people whom he describes as "super-apostles." Paul is being sarcastic with the label "super," but his cutting description is pointing to a contrast many within the church seemed to be making. The super-apostles appeared stylish and successful, whereas Paul seemed weak and ineffectual. 

Knowing he was coming out on the short end of a contrast with the super-apostles, Paul takes aim at the metric being used. How should one evaluate a ministry? By what criteria do we judge success? You see Paul making this point in a pivotal text:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5.16-17)
Paul was suffering in the comparison with the super-apostles because the Corinthian church was viewing their respective ministries from "a worldly point of view." And from a worldly point of view, Paul's ministry seemed the poorer. Paul didn't seem as successful, talented, attractive, spectacular, polished or charismatic. But as Paul points out, Jesus hanging on the cross didn't look much like a winner. Seen from a worldly point of view, Jesus on the cross doesn't appear successful, talented, attractive, spectacular, polished or charismatic. 

Paul's key insight is that you can't see the kingdom if you're using the wrong metrics, if your perception is skewed. My favorite example of this comes early in the letter, where Paul uses a metaphor of smelling. This is a favorite of mine because most of the sensory and perceptual metaphors used to describe the kingdom of God tend to be visual or auditory metaphors, images of sight or hearing. But in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul describes the perceptual contrast as being between perfume and stench:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. (2 Cor 2.14-16)
Compared to the super-apostles, Paul's person and ministry smelled like trash. He was an offensive odor. Paul stank, and the Corinthians were holding their noses. But Paul's offensive smell, to return back to the visual metaphor, was due to how the church was looking at him from "a worldly point of view." How Paul smelled had less to do with Paul than with the perceptual filters being used by the church.

For those with cruciform perception, Paul and his ministry would have smelled like roses. But for those using worldly perception, Paul was an offensive stink. The sensory contrast--smelling like roses or trash--hinges completely upon one's perceptual filters. 

And so, I told the men out at the prison, we enter the world with our noses. We will smell the smells. The question is, are we able to smell our way into the kingdom of God? When Christ appears unexpectedly before us, will we smell roses or trash? Will be be drawn to the perfume of God or recoil in disgust?

So let me give Jesus's "for the one who as ears, let them hear" a little Pauline tweak:

For the one who has a nose, let them smell.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply