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The sweet smell of success??

3 weeks ago

In this week’s ReSource Vlog Revd. Canon Amanda Barraclough shares a parable with us and dives into themes of authenticity and discipleship.

Fresh coffee? Warm bread, straight from the oven? The scent of a newborn baby? Aromas which comfort, entice and attract us, and stir memories. Each of us have our own ‘trigger’ aromas, deeply embedded in our memory. That floor polish which transports your mind back to the infant school hall of years ago. Aromas are powerful.

One evening recently, setting off for a PCC meeting, I opened my car door and was greeted with an unexpected aroma. Lemon washing up liquid. Not the usual fragrance to greet me. It was a tell-tale sign that, in the array of carrier bags loaded in the car after the school Harvest Festival earlier that day, under which the chassis was then groaning, something was leaking out. One item amongst literally hundreds was making a difference in that space. The rest were hermetically sealed and left no lingering scent. It seemed to me a parable. One whose depths I would plumb further as I set off on retreat two days later.

We are, as God’s people, I think, learning to inhabit a place of vulnerability in the wake of the pandemic – and to depend on the Spirit in new ways. With that in mind, I had determined to immerse myself, whilst on retreat, in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians. After all, there I glimpse Paul in a place of vulnerability I see nowhere else. He is regarded with contempt, dismissed with scorn- an image of failure compared with others whose message was slick and a model of success. An object of ridicule, Paul likens himself to the slave dragged in chains behind a conquering army’s homecoming parade, to be jeered and scorned by the crowds. “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.” The return of a triumphal retinue would be preceded in those times by the spreading of grains of incense on the route to be taken. The wheels of the chariots, the hooves of the horses, the sandals of the foot-soldiers, ground the incense grains into the dirt, creating an aroma which filled the streets. It was literally the sweet smell of success. Everyone in the crowd would carry that association of incense with victory. The captured slaves bringing up the rear, jeered and taunted, would carry it in their skin, on the soles of their feet, in the folds of their soiled clothes. The sweet smell of success – on those who appeared anything but successful.  Paul is content to be viewed with contempt as long as he’s in the right procession – the triumphal procession of Christ. Carrying the aroma of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We cannot do that within the Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus infuses us with the fragrance of Jesus. It cannot be replicated like cheap copy-cat perfume. 

The sweet smell of success is something the church has craved – and slick ministry and models of church growth have been the way we thought we’d experience it. Slick ministry and models of growth as an focus for the church have had their day for me. The pandemic has taught me that humble discipleship in the triumphal procession of a crucified and risen Messiah is enough, my bare feet caked in the dust and incense ground into my path by those who have trodden the way before me. Authentic, gritty, real, discipleship. If church growth happens, it is a by-product of faithful discipleship, not an end in itself. 

After all, not everyone will enjoy the aroma – the Gospel has Marmite qualities – “To one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” To some it’s repugnant. If growth alone is our focus, we’ll be tempted to tone down the aroma, or hermetically seal it in to avoid putting people off, in the interests of our goal of growth. The future of the church depends on us being a distinctive fragrant aroma, like that single bottle of lemon washing up liquid which filled the entire car without effort, just by being what it was. And leaking out. We don’t like repugnance – the church is in danger of being so bland we get no reaction, offend no-one, and die quietly, hermetically sealed in our beautiful buildings. How we need the Spirit of grace! We always have done. It’s just we are more aware of that need than we have been.  Infuse us, Spirit of Jesus, with the aroma of his life, his death, his resurrection. 

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