2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6
Whenever I return from traveling overseas—like from the trip to Mozambique I described a couple of weeks ago—among the many things that strike me as odd once I step back onto American soil is how nothing smells. What with emission standards, sanitized garbage bags, deodorizing soaps, scented clothing, diaper genies and disinfected everything else; you rarely get a whiff of anything that really reeks. This is clearly deliberate. The fragrance market designed to mask offensive smells rakes in around $11 billion annually. Antibacterial products add another $16 billion.
Our national obsession with sanitation has even found its way into church worship. In the interest of good hygiene, my parents’ church in North Carolina uses a bulk-ordered communion service comprised of hundreds of single serving, pre-filled, pre-consecrated, dual action communion cups, each with a dime-sized, tasteless communion wafer and a sip of diluted grape juice packaged together in one sanitary, ready to use, two-part, plastic cup. You pick up one as you enter the church and when it comes time to partake, you peel back the top layer and retrieve the wafer and then a second peel gets you to the juice. A pop-top Eucharist. The body and blood of Christ hermetically sealed for you.
Maybe the use of single-serving communion containers is all about hygiene—they’re always popular in flu season. Or maybe its more a matter of efficiency—ready-to-use-and-dispose communion elements can help make sure that you still get out of church in an hour on communion Sundays—always popular during football season. However, I wonder if maybe some folks just prefer not to be reminded about what bread and wine signify. A hermetically sealed communion cup helps to mask the implied stench of death that the Eucharist recalls. The cross was a horribly nasty business. All the more reason not to be reminded how Jesus said that following him demanded we take up crosses too. There is plenty about the gospel that commends itself to belief: assurances of eternal life, forgiven sin and unconditional love and a caring community. But then there are those other parts: the pursuit of holiness, being unashamed of your faith, forgiving unrepentant offenders, selflessly serving needy people, losing your lifestyle, loving your enemies, hardship and trouble.
We’re three weeks into a sermon series from 2 Corinthians. Paul led off chapter 1 by praising God “who comforts us in all our troubles.” The troubles Paul meant, you’ll remember, are specifically those kinds of troubles and suffering that inevitably come when you get serious about taking up your cross. Of course, Paul promises God’s comfort for our troubles, but what Paul means by comfort is not the alleviation of suffering as much as its endurance. Basically, it’s the capacity to go out and suffer more.
Many of you have responded favorably to these sermons thus far—for which I am thankful. However it does make me wonder how much suffering for Jesus is actually going on. That’s because if you have ever put yourself out there for the gospel—whether through selflessly serving needy people, take a stand for righteousness, or forgiving an unrepentant offender—only to have your serving rejected, your integrity scoffed or your forgiveness scorned; then you know how much taking up a cross for Jesus stinks and how the last thing you want to hear is that you need to go out and take it up some more.
“But thanks be to God anyway!” Paul sings in this morning’s passage from 2 Corinthians, “In Christ He always leads us in triumphal procession!” This only makes matters worse. I don’t know about you, but when I feel like my faith is bringing me nothing but trouble, the last thing I need is some glad happy Bible verse that reads as if my troubles don’t exist.
Thankfully, 2 Corinthians 2:14 is not one of those verses. When Paul writes that “God leads us in triumph,” he employs a specific term denoting ancient Roman victory parades put on to celebrate military conquests. The entire populace would turn out whenever one of these lavish parades marched down main street, replete with lyres and cymbals, decorated soldiers and senate dignitaries, gold-laden floats decked out with the spoils of battle, toga-clad beauty queens waving to the crowd. Yet also in queue marched captured generals and armies, chained prisoners of war humiliated into spectacles of utter defeat. At the parade’s conclusion these same prisoners would be disgracefully executed. Recognizing this to be the verb’s meaning, we’re struck with the awkward realization that Paul places himself as the object of the verb, and not its subject. Rather than sharing in the triumph, Paul is suffering the humiliation of a death-bound captive prisoner.
Realizing this, the influential 16th century reformer, John Calvin, argued against a literal interpretation, insisting that the verb be understood as Paul’s sharing in the triumph rather than suffering the humiliation. It’s an interpretation the King James Bible still records with verse 14 giving thanks to God who “always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” But that’s not right. God does not cause us to triumph in Christ as much as God causes Christ to triumph over us. Jesus takes us prisoner. He makes us spectacles of utter defeat, binding us as captives to himself—and Paul thanks God for it. He thanks God for leading him and his sinful self to death everyday so that Christ’s triumph might be made evident—a triumph which Paul goes on to describe as “the fragrance of knowing God.”
It’s an apt analogy, especially once you realize that the word translated fragrance is actually just the plain Greek word for odor. It’s that quality of something that affects your mind and forces action. And as we all know, few things affect your mind and force action like odor. It’s why the gas company laces odorless natural gas with the foul stench of tertiary butyl mercaptan. Now they could have picked some sweeter scent—say pumpkin spice or fresh garden fresh lilac—but such scents only lull us into relaxing and breathing deeply, not something you want to do in the presence of a natural gas leak. So instead, the gas industry offends our senses with this fetid reek so to get you up and get you out of your house. It’s a stench that saves your life.
The same with the gospel. Hardship and humiliation for Christ’s sake—the marks of genuine obedience and faith—still smell like hardship and humiliation. They smell bad. But to those who are being saved, Paul writes, these are the perfumes of life.
However to Paul’s detractors in Corinth, the whole thing smelled fishy. What kind of twisted religion boasts of humiliation and weakness? What genuine apostle suffers so miserably? What sort of Savior saves by getting executed on a cross? What kind of grace comes from disgrace? They had a point. And they practically had the Corinthians convinced. You get the sense by the end of verse 16 that Paul himself might have wondered what he’d stepped in. “Who is sufficient for these things?” he asks, “Who can preach this stuff?”
Certainly not his detractors. Verse 17: “We are not peddlers of the gospel trying to sell you some sanitized, pop-top Jesus,” Paul writes. On the contrary, “in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity.” We tell the stinking truth. “Does this sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our own credentials, asserting our own authority?” No, Paul writes, “in Christ we speak as persons sent from God.” “Are we like others, who need letters of recommendation, or who ask you to write such letters on their behalf?” No again, Paul goes on in chapter 3. Letters of recommendation, then as now, are only for those who lack personal credibility. If the gospel’s purpose is to reconcile sinners to God, then all the Corinthians needed to verify Paul’s credibility as a minister of that gospel was a good look in the mirror. “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation,” verse 2, “written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”
To the nose Paul adds the eye. If it looks like a Christian and smells like a Christian, it must be a Christian. Christians show by their lives, verse 3, that they are scratch and sniff “letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” We reek with the supernatural gas that is the Holy Spirit. Humiliated and afflicted, Christians exhibit humility and have compassion on the afflicted. As prisoners taken captive by Christ, Christians speak of the freedom of obedience. As offenders forgiven by God, Christians forgive the offensive people who’ve hurt them—looking foolish in the eyes of the world with a foolishness that marks them as belonging to Jesus.
Preparing for my mission trip to mosquito and parasite-infested Mozambique for Christ’s sake—a trip for which I was not totally enthused—I to get a couple of passport photos for my visa. The clerk in the photo shop asked where I was headed, so I told him. As one of the poorest countries on the planet, Mozambique is a travel hot spot only in terms of Fahrenheit, so it came as little surprise that the clerk impulsively blurted out, “What the hell are you going there for!?” Trained as a pastor to recognize such questions as opportunities for the gospel, I politely replied with the gospel truth: “I’m going to visit missionaries.” He couldn’t tell if I was serious. But he decided not to chance it. “Well, that’s a heck of a nice thing to be doing,” he said, though with a hint of derision. He pegged me for a Jesus freak. He thought I was nuts.
Nuts and freaks like members of this church who’ve been heading down to Stillwater prison once a month for the past thirty years to provide a worship service for inmates. I was told this week how other members have served as mentors to those inmates once they got out, helping them to get back on their feet, some in remarkable ways. Or nuts and freaks like others who give valuable time out of busy schedules to help at food shelves, or mentor students in North Minneapolis, or work among the homeless there. Or like the mother I was told about whose son was murdered by another teenager only to then visit her son’s murderer in prison, manage by grace to forgive him, and then go on to befriend him and with him help others to forgive likewise.
A heck of a nice thing to do. Freak.
I remember trying to start a homeless outreach group in Boston. Instead of trying to coax street people into the church, my thought was to get out onto the streets, build relationships and feed the poor—basic Christian stuff. A heck of a nice thing to do, but seriously? Hanging out with homeless people on the streets at night? Are you crazy? I decided to bring up this resistance to my idea in a couple of sermons and see if I couldn’t shame at least a few people into signing up anyway. I’m here to report that guilt still works. I got about 25 people to join in an effort that is still going on.
However, just as guilt might not be the best motivator, it turns out that providing food and clothing for people on the streets may not be the best way to help. I was reading this week about a fairly recent idea known as “Housing First” or rapid re-housing, that has achieved notable reductions in chronic homelessness. In places like Denver, Seattle, Cambridge, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, housing first has accounted decreases of up to 42% in homeless street populations. The way it works is that rather than funneling government money into shelter and food services, this same money is used to rent apartments that are given to homeless people. You walk up to a homeless person and say, “This is the key to an apartment. If you come with me right now I am going to give it to you, and you are going to have that apartment.” Though the program has worked and proven economical too, it has its drawbacks, the most obvious being that it is morally offensive.
As MIT’s Malcolm Gladwell observed, “Thousands of people … no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging cheap vodka gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man passes out on the sidewalk, you give him an apartment?”
He has a point. Giving out free apartments to the most undeserving is outrageous. It is morally offensive and extremely unfair—which may be why it works. And which may be Housing First sounds suspiciously like the gospel.
Think about it: From God’s vantage point, who are human sinners but an ungrateful lot of chronic indigents who’ve opted for all kinds of cheap vodka, swearing obscenities when life gets complicated before giving up and passing out? With no place to call home, at the end of our ropes with no hope of redeeming ourselves, up walks Jesus who in effect says, “I am the key to a new apartment. If you follow me right now I am going to give it to you.”
No wonder Paul’s detractors, and so many others, find the gospel so hard to believe. Imagine strolling over to some guy panhandling in North Minneapolis and dropping a set of keys into his cup and saying, “Hey buddy, there’s an apartment down in Edina with your name on it. Enjoy.” I’m sure he’d believe you. He’d probably tell you what you could do with your keys. Which was precisely the response Paul was getting as he dropped keys in the Corinthians’ cups— the only difference was that the Corinthians’ cups still had coffee in them. Paul had the audacity to treat these law-abiding citizens as if they were impoverished, drunken, street people! How dare he presume that they needed Jesus! Did he not realize they were already good Christians?
Paul plays with a lot of language here in chapter 3, much of it from the Old Testament. He contrasts “tablets of stone,” an allusion to the Ten Commandments, with “tablets of the heart,” a reference to the prophet Ezekiel. He mentions the “new covenant” which comes from Jeremiah. He mentions a “letter that kills” in verse 6, which is sometimes translated as “letter of the law.” Distinct from Paul’s earlier “letter of recommendation,” this “letter of the law” is his code for “successful religious performance.” It’s what Jesus, when chiding the Pharisees, described as “practicing your piety before other people in order to be praised by them.” This is a danger for sincere Christians still. Successful obedience can warp into personal pride turning people initially humbled by grace into people who didn’t need grace anymore. For that small group working among the homeless in Boston, it was easy to feel all righteous about what good Christians we were for helping poor people, smugly looking down on fellow believers who obviously lacked our true faith.
Knowing this danger, Paul never claims any sufficiency or competency in himself. He writes in verse 5 how any competency and sufficiency for the work of the gospel comes from God alone. As far as Paul himself goes, he sees himself as always as a cross-bound captive prisoner of the gospel, led to death daily so that Christ’s triumph might be made evident—a triumph which Paul describes as “the fragrance of knowing God.” Unworthy to do what God calls him to do—but enabled by the Spirit to do it anyway—Paul stinks up the place with the grace of God. Humiliated and afflicted, Christians exhibit humility and have compassion on the afflicted. As prisoners taken captive by Christ, Christians speak of the freedom of obedience. As offenders forgiven by God, Christians forgive the offensive people who’ve hurt them—looking foolish in the eyes of the world with a foolishness that marks them as belonging to Jesus, and with a smell that reeks of the Holy Spirit. May we always smell so sweet.