“Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” 2nd Corinthians 2:14, NRSV ---
The apostle Paul had a special relationship with the Christian community at Corinth, an important city in ancient Greece. It was Paul who first brought the Christian message to Corinth, and it was through his work that the church there was established. While the relationship was at times rocky, it endured through hardships and disagreements. The 1st letter to the Corinthians in our New Testament is one of our most valuable letters in understanding the mind and the character of this great apostle in the early decades of the Christian Church. In the 1st Corinthians letter, Paul lays out principles of Christian worship and discipleship for this diverse community of converts. He wants them to thrive in their love for Christ and for one another, and to be a witness of this godly love to all those around them.
Paul probably exchanged many letters with members of the church at Corinth. We have just one other in our New Testament, labeled the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. This letter appears to have been written after a difficult episode between Paul and the Corinthian congregation. As with any of the Pauline letters in our New Testament, it is only one side of a conversation, for which we don’t have the other. But there are themes that emerge in this letter that Paul wrote to one of his most beloved congregations. We’ll be looking at some of these key ideas during worship over the next few weeks, with a series called, "More Than Meets the Eye." God often works behind the scenes to help us to grow and to show us our worth and our true treasure, and to open our eyes to beauty, opportunity and godly strength.
While Paul recognizes his own human frailty as he seeks to teach and lead in the early years of the Church, he also insists that God works through those who are willing to be used for God’s purposes, regardless of their imperfections. Of himself and his missionary colleagues, he says, "We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing." (2nd Corinthians 2:15) Paul recognizes that none of us through our own strength can adequately bear the fragrant love and grace of Jesus Christ, but as we continually place ourselves in God’s presence through prayer and the Word, we can indeed “smell good” for the sake of Christ.
Have you ever been in the presence of someone or something that bore a pleasant and lasting fragrance that lingered with you even after that person or that thing was gone from you? That’s how a person should feel after being in the presence of someone whose heart is close to Christ. We don’t literally “smell like Jesus,” but we bear a spiritual “fragrance” that lingers with others when we are living close to our Lord. We bear a fragrance of joy and kindness and peace and strength, that will be remembered long after we have left the room. It will bring God glory and will help to draw others to Christ. This is the fragrance I hope we all will want to bear. While we won’t always succeed, with God’s help, we can be more of the aroma of Christ to those we encounter each day.
With prayers for your journey,
I often say how much I enjoy having adult children. Though I occasionally miss the sweet morning cuddles and the other joys of having young children, watching my sons grow up and pursue their own interests and “launch” has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Our sons are now 30, 27 and 25 years old, and I could not have anticipated nor chosen for them the careers and hobbies they now enjoy. My husband and I did our best to expose them to many different opportunities when they were growing up, and then took a hands-off approach as they were deciding about careers and adult hobbies, seeking simply to support them in the choices they made. Occasionally they do things that cause us to hold our breath a little (purposeful trips to risky places, challenging outdoor sports), but we would never wish for them to live in a bubble, just to be “safe.” We tried to teach them the difference between worthy risks and foolish decisions, and I hope they will always make wise and expansive choices.
There’s hardly a week that goes by that I don’t consult with one of my grown sons or their beloved women for opinion, advice or a recommendation of some sort. I love meeting their friends, and I take joy in just listening to them talk to one another. They live in a world that is different than mine, and while my husband and I can bring the wisdom of years and our own life’s experiences to bear in our relationships with our grown children, we have so much to learn from them, as well.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with a young woman who used to babysit my children. She’s now in her 30’s, a seminary graduate, and a pastor. This girl who used to build sofa forts with my kids and whose decision once to help them make red jello while I was away resulted in a spill of epic proportions, is now a professional colleague to me. We shared with one another about our congregations and how we’ve fared and adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We shared about our respective ministries, and commiserated about a few of the difficulties each of us has experienced along the way to where we are, today.
I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words to the young Timothy, who found himself thrust into leadership in a troubled congregation of the early Church: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…do not neglect the gift that is in you…” (1st Timothy 4:12, 14a) Paul says elsewhere that “I have no one like him…how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” (Philippians 2:20a, 22b)
The young Christian adults of today are the mature Christian leaders of the near future. We do well to give them our ear. It is not always easy to hear what they have to say to us. We might wish that they preferred to adopt our own opinions and take up our preferred practices; just as our elders in the faith once wished of us! But the faithful young adults we know have become our colleagues in the Christian life. They want to nudge the rest of us toward worthy risks and expansive choices. If there is a faithful young adult in your life who is trying to gain your ear, take a moment to listen to what she or he has to say.
With prayers for your journey,
As I write this, we are in the midst of the Christian Holy Week. In these last days before Easter, we remember events in the life of Jesus leading up to his death and resurrection; his Last Supper with his disciples, his agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal and arrest, his interrogation by authorities, his suffering at the hands of those who mocked him and beat him, and finally, his Crucifixion. Many of the final passages of the Gospels are difficult to read, and we might like to skip over them to get to the Good News at the end.
Knowing the suffering that lay ahead of him, and the suffering that would surely follow for those who remained to bear his message, Jesus took the opportunity to spend a final Passover meal with his disciples. He gave them a commandment to love one another, as he had loved them. And he took up a towel and acted out the kind of humility he expected of them, as they were preparing to carry forth his message of love and salvation. Like a servant or a slave, the Son of God washed the feet of his disciples.
In her book, Lent in Plain Sight, pastor Jill Duffield uses ten common things as objects for reflection during the weeks leading up to Easter; dust, bread, a cross, coins, shoes and oil, coats, towels and thorns, and stones.
For Maundy Thursday, she tells of her experience of once seeing a stack of Bibles among things on a housekeeper’s cart as she was leaving a hotel room. The cart was “large, cumbersome, stacked with little soaps, shampoos bottles, coffee supplies, linens, towels – and Bibles,” she says. “The juxtaposition caught my attention. There tucked between the hand towels and the bath towels was the Word of the Lord…” She dropped her bags and took a photo because she wanted to remember the power of that image.
“That morning in the hotel I thought mostly about the people pushing those carts up and down the hallways, doing physical work for not much pay…the people pushing those carts and cleaning others’ toilets were individuals with names and stories. Many, no doubt, fellow disciples who knew intimately and daily what it feels like to pick up a towel and serve.”
Jill Duffield says it was only later that she realized the connection between what she saw that morning, and the story of Jesus’ Passover supper with his disciples.
“Jesus, during his last meal with his closest friends, with hours left of his earthly life, takes a towel, gets on his knees, and washes his disciples’ feet, even the disciple who will betray him. The Word and the towel together, inextricable…We are servants of the Lord of all, who willingly ate with sinners, touched lepers, welcomed children, and washed feet. Nothing is beneath us,” Jill says, “when Jesus is the Rock upon which we stand.”
“If we do not put the Word alongside the towel and take them both…house to house, town to town, to the ends of the earth, we are failing to follow Jesus. If we forget those who push heavy carts down long hallways or wake up before dawn to pick up trash or get on their knees to scrub floors or carefully wash the feet of the sick for very little pay…we fail to follow the One who not only knows them by name, but numbers the hairs on their heads.”
As difficult as it is for us to read the stories of Jesus’ suffering, perhaps our greatest challenge is to take up The Towel. We know that we will never have to suffer just as Jesus did, because there is only One who died for our sins and for the sins of the world. But we do have to respond to Jesus’ command that we’re to love one another and to serve one another in ways that break down the barriers between us. No one of us is too good to wash another’s feet, whatever that act of service looks like in the contexts in which we find ourselves, today.
With prayers for your journey,
“We are worse than we think we are, but we are more forgiven than we can imagine because we have been more loved than we could ever possibly conceive.” (Rev. Keith Abramowski)
This quote of his own is the cover photo on the Facebook account of a seminary classmate of mine, and every time I see it, I’m led to pause and ponder the wonderful paradox contained in this statement. As humans in a world broken by sin, you and I are utterly in need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. But as humans born of the creation of God, we are also utterly precious and loved by God. There is nothing God desires more than to be in relationship with us through the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. In regard to our human condition, we can never think too lowly of ourselves in terms of our need for God’s mercy and help. But at the same time, we can never think too highly of ourselves when it comes to our value in the eyes of God. Learning to live in the tension of this paradox is part of what it means to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
I was reminded of this again a few days ago when the words of an older hymn came to mind. There are many contemporary hymns that I love, but I am also grateful to have been steeped in the traditional hymns that were sung in my childhood church. To hold contemporary songs in one hand and traditional hymns in the other makes for a rich hymnody; it’s a “musical canon” in my head for which I’m deeply grateful. The hymn that came to mind recently is one by Charles Gabriel called, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.”
I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how He could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean.
For me it was in the garden, He prayed, “Not my will, but Thine.” He had no tears for His own griefs, but sweat drops of blood for mine.
He took my sins and my sorrows, He made them His very own; He bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered and died alone.
When with the ransomed in glory His face I at last shall see, 'twill be my joy through the ages to sing of His love for me.
How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be; How marvelous! How wonderful! Is my Savior’s love for me.
The fact that a perfect God could continue to love us in spite of all our failings is a gift worthy of our amazement. God came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, and in this way, bore our sins and our sorrows and made them his own, so that you and I might know the joy of God’s eternal presence. When we place our future into the hands of our Savior, we can know we will one day see his face, and then the marvelous song will be our own.
With prayers for your journey,