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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville
Dr. Todd B. Jones
August 12, 2012 

The Aroma of Christ
2 Samuel 18:5-9
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

A little over ten years ago I was attending a conference at Montreat called by a group of past moderators of the Presbyterian Church to discuss candidly and openly some of the issues that were dividing us as a church.  The meeting lasted almost three days, and I recall listening a great deal to one professor of theology at a west coast seminary whom I had never before met.  She was very bright, very articulate, very forceful, and quite persuasive whenever she spoke.  I was deeply impressed with this young theologian.

At a final meal a large group of us were sharing, this young professor announced that she was in need of a ride to the airport.  I explained that I was driving right by the Asheville Airport on my way home and would be glad to give her a ride.  I helped her put her bags into the back of my car, and in the summer heat I could feel a little perspiration form above my lip and on my forehead.  We got into the car and took off, and suddenly I realized that a very foul odor filled the car.  I was mortified!  Here I was trying to be thoughtful to someone, and I realized that I was giving off an offensive, horrible stench.  In a word, I had B.O.!  I don’t ever remember smelling so bad, and I was stunned and embarrassed.  I did the only thing I knew to do in such a setting.  I apologized.  I still remember how utterly embarrassed I was.  “I am so sorry.  I realize that I have terrible body order.  I don’t know where it could have come from, but maybe the heat of the day just got me.  I am so embarrassed.  I don’t ever remember smelling this bad.” I think I apologized two or three more times on that twenty-two minute ride to the airport.  I should have just been quiet, but I was so deeply embarrassed by how offensive the odor was that I could not keep my mouth shut.  So we pulled up to the airport, I got out and took her bags out of the back, and said goodbye.  I was wondering as I drove off where I could pull over to find some deodorant in my bags, to do some damage control.

And then suddenly, I realized, the odor was completely gone … there was not a hint of it left.  And in a moment, I felt even worse!  It suddenly dawned on me … I wasn’t the one who smelled so bad!  Why hadn’t I just kept my big mouth shut?  Why did I have to mention that foul odor, not once, but maybe three or four times?!

In our passage this morning, Paul offers a good conclusion to an important section of his letter to the Ephesians.  We know he is drawing a conclusion by his use of the word “therefore.” “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  This, for Paul, is the heart of the Gospel – Jesus’ offering up of Himself as a sacrifice to God.  And Paul here calls it “a fragrant offering.”  The ancients, and especially the Greeks, believed that the gods had olfactory gifts to smell the offerings we made to them.  Many Christian traditions deal in scents offered to God. Remember the wise men bringing incense and frankincense to the Babe born in Bethlehem? Paul here calls Jesus’ once-for-all-offering of Himself on the cross “a fragrant offering.” And he does it in a concluding sentence in which he bids us to “be imitators of God.”

It got me to thinking, “How do we Christians smell to the world?”  Paul, in saying that Jesus was a “fragrant offering” to God, implies, I think, that our lives are to be fragrant offerings as well.  He is suggesting that we should leave a pleasing aroma behind wherever we have been.

And in this passage where Paul bids us to be “imitators of God,”  and to give to the world a “fragrant offering,” that is, a pleasing one, he writes mostly about the way we speak, about our use of words.  Paul here is offering ethical instruction to the young church in Ephesus, and he hits on a matter that applies to every last one of our lives, and a matter that is crucial and important to our life together: our speech.  The words we use, and how we use them, create the climate of our lives.  This is true in every area of your life.  “Words create worlds,” said philosopher Hans Gadamer.  And the patterns of speech in your home, with your family, in your workplace, and surely in your church create a climate, the environment in which you dwell. 

Paul thinks the community of faith should possess a distinctive scent from the rest of the world.  He believed that the baptized community of believers should emit a fragrant, a sweet smelling scent to the world.  And is there any way we can do this any more powerfully than through our speech, through the words we offer and the way we offer them?! 

Paul clearly thinks that some forms of speech plainly stink.  “Let no evil come out of your mouths...,” he says. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice….” Paul sees these as destructive of community, and we all know how much destruction we can wreak with our careless tongues.  Blaise Pascal in his Pensées says, “Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them, and bitter words make them bitter, and wrathful words make them wrathful.  Kind words also produce their images on people’s souls; and a beautiful image it is.”

Words matter!  Do we understand in the slightest the power our words possess over others?  Paul says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may impart grace to those who hear.”  This is why speech matters so much!  Our words have the power to “build up”; they can even “impart grace to those who hear.”  Saint Frances de Sales said, “Our words are a faithful index of the state of our souls.” 

Paul is clear about what we should not say, or in his words, what we should “put away.”  Malicious words, angry words spoken in haste can be so destructive.  That is why Paul says so wisely, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”  Everyone gets angry.  Everyone.  Paul knows this.  But we can allow anger to take over our lives.  And some people do.  There is so much anger in our culture, and it can be so destructive.  Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, said, “Speak when you are angry and you will give the best speech you will ever regret.” Speaking without thinking is like shooting without taking aim.

Paul wants us to put some things away.  He also wants us to “put some things on” as the Church, the body of Christ, where we are “members of one another.”  Paul says “speak the truth.”  Truth builds up community and anything less than the truth tears it down.  Trust is essential to any community, and truth is essential to establish and maintain it.

But mostly, Paul commends kindness and mercy.  “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you.”  Kindness always leaves a lingering sweetness.  Goethe said, “Kind words are the music of the world.” And all of us have the power, the capacity to give them.  You don’t have to be brilliant or clever or funny or charming to be kind.  And tenderhearted words are always in season.  And of course, what words have more power to heal than words of forgiveness?  Ephesians here reminds us that the big reason we are to forgive is that “God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Last week in Linville, North Carolina, Connie and I had lunch and then a lovely Sunday evening visit with Tom and Ann Cousins.  Tom Cousins might be one of the most effective, influential Presbyterians that I know.  The transformation of one of the worst sections of Atlanta under Tom’s leadership was the subject of an NBC documentary called, “The Miracle of Eastlake.” Tom really believes that the Gospel can change the world, and he is a very successful real estate developer who has put his money where his mouth is.  He believes the Church is called to be a part of this transformation, and he is investing a whole lot of money into recruiting and attracting gifted young leaders to consider spending their lives in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church.

But I will never forget a moment we shared with Tom about seven years ago in Augusta at the Masters.  Connie and Josh and I were walking with George and Barbara Wirth and Tom and Ann Cousins down the second hole at Augusta.  There were rows and rows of people lined up alongside that long, downhill fairway.  As a guy named Joe Ogilvie was playing, Tom said to us, “I saw him play this winter in Florida, and I met him.  He is a very fine young man.”

And in that huge crowd of thousands of people, right in front of us, a woman turned around with a huge smile on her face and said to us, “That fine young man is my son!”

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Amen.

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