2 Corinthians 2:14-17
by Daniel Harrell
I’ve always liked Pentecost Sunday, even though I’m not Pentecostal in the hand-raising, tongues-speaking sense. I confess to being more of a gospel of John Pentecostal—with the risen Jesus gently breathing his Spirit in my ear rather than blowing me away with a hurricane and fire. Still, I love the picture the book of Acts paints of the disciples huddled in an upper room, biding their time as Jesus instructed, waiting when suddenly the windows fly open with a blast of wind and flaming tongues raining down to lick their heads. Fired up, the newly-inspired apostles hit the streets, praised the Lord and preached the gospel to every person they saw in every language they heard spoken. Theologians differ as to whether the first Pentecost was a miracle of speech or a miracle of hearing, but either way the message was clear: “The Jesus you crucified is alive and now risen as Christ and Lord and seated at the right hand of God Almighty. Repent, be baptized and forgiven, and taste his Spirit yourselves.”
Pentecost is actually a Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of Torah, the law, provided by God on two tablets to Moses atop Mt. Sinai. At the first Christian Pentecost, God gave his Spirit everybody. Fire burned on both occasions to symbolize God’s presence; but tongues instead of stone tablets accompany the Holy Spirit as the word of God is now living and active in his people, winsome and sweeter than honey. Tongues taste as well as talk, and thus the Psalmist can sing, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Likewise, Jesus as God’s word in the flesh can say, “this is my body broken for you, take and eat in remembrance of me.” And the apostle Paul adds, “whenever we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, we announce the Lord’s death until he comes.” Tongues talk and taste. As you may recall from my cooking in the Bible series last fall, to taste can be a spiritual experience. Be it as sacrificial lamb, bread of life, cup of blessing, holiday feasts or ancient meals around tables with friends, flavor whets our appetites for eternity. Like beauty which we looked at last week, flavor too is true grace: it delights our senses, refreshes our spirits, captures our attention and invites us to linger and wonder and be blown away. Down south, you testify to good-tasting vittles by exclaiming: “I have died and gone to heaven.”
I’m taking just four more Sundays to share about my sabbatical—time away for which I remain so grateful to you and from which I learned and experienced so much (which is why I’ve been talking so much about it). While in Southern California as a visiting scholar at Fuller Seminary, we ate a lot of fabulous Southern California cuisine, from amazing ahi tuna and succulent sushi to scrumptious tacos and mouth-watering burgers. Good flavor is so fabulous, why ever waste your tastebuds on anything mediocre? Dawn and I spent a belated Valentine’s at a Los Angeles restaurant called Osteria Mozza, one of the most famous Italian restaurants in the world. Our server regaled us as to the menu offerings that night, and unashamedly assured us, like a Pentecostal preacher, that one bite of the Orecchiette pasta with sausage and swiss chard was a life-changing experience. Having now partaken of this ethereal dish, I am indeed a new man—died and gone to heaven again. The chefs of Osteria Mozza are the renown Nancy Silverton and the famed celebrity chef Mario Batali, who were both deeply influenced by the esteemed Italian home cook and cookbook writer, the late Marcella Hazan.
Explaining the power of food to change lives, Marcella described cooking as “an act of love. I do enjoy the craft of cooking, of course, otherwise I would not have done so much of it, but that is a very small part of the pleasure it brings me. What I love is to cook for someone. To put a freshly made meal on the table, even if it is something very plain and simple as long as it tastes good and is not a ready-to-eat something bought at the store, is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.” (I taped this quote on my refrigerator.)
The secret, as they say, is the sauce. And among the most celebrated sauces in the world is Marcella Hazan’s ragú bolognese. I’ve got it simmering in the pot. Here’s how you make it…
A lot of things go together to make up a flavorful sauce: good ingredients, a strong pot, slow heat and time. The analogies to deep spirituality are hopefully obvious. A flavorful sauce possesses both intensity and power, it expresses love and beauty and elicits genuine joy. The smell is as good as the taste.
Our passage this morning is about spiritual smell, “the aroma of Christ to God,” the apostle Paul calls it. In this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul thanks God for the comfort the Lord provides in our troubles. By troubles, however, Paul does not mean the trouble we get into through our own bad behavior, but rather those problems that arise when we get serious about following Jesus. If you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of the gospel—whether selflessly serving needy people, taking 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 being a Christian can stink. “But thanks be to God anyway!” Paul exclaims, “In Christ, He always leads us in triumphal procession!”
Unfortunately to many, Paul’s declaration of victory here sounds more like denial than comfort, a glad happy Bible verse meme that pretends my troubles don’t exist. But personal victory over trouble is not at all what Paul means. When he writes “In Christ, God leads us in triumph,” Paul employs a specific verb denoting ancient Roman victory parades put on to celebrate military conquests. These lavish parades marched down main street drawing enormous crowds. Led by decorated soldiers and senate dignitaries, followed by fancy floats loaded down with the spoils of war, at the tail end were captured generals and armies in tow, chained prisoners of war humiliated into spectacles of utter defeat. This being the verb’s meaning, we’re struck by an awkward realization: Paul places himself as the object of the verb, and not as its subject. Rather than leading in triumph, Paul’s the captured prisoner paraded in humiliation, chained as a death-bound captive.
Bothered by the awkwardness, Christians have long argued against a literal interpretation, insisting the verb be understood as Paul riding up front rather than being chained to the back. But Jesus had taken Paul captive, a prisoner to Christ—and the apostle gladly thanks the Lord for it. Paul thanks God for reducing his prideful self down to death everyday so that Christ’s triumph might be made evident through him—a sweet-smelling victory Paul calls “the fragrance of knowing Jesus.”
The best sauce happens when you reduce it down. With heat and time and Christ as the cook with the Spirit his spoon, we simmer down and intensify into aromatic disciples, fragrant with the flavor of grace. Fragrance, aroma, flavor—these are transcendent realities that draw out worship and witness and make humiliation and hardship endurable. Granted, just because something is flavorful doesn’t mean you’ll like how it tastes. Humiliation and hardship are still humiliation and hardship. To Paul’s detractors in Corinth, the whole thing smelled fishy. What kind of twisted religion boasts of indignity and defeat? What sort of apostle suffers so miserably? Who’s ever heard of a Savior who saves by getting killed on a cross? 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?”
And yet, Paul writes, among those being saved, this is the fragrance of life; “the aroma of Christ to God,” which all of the Jews in the room would have understood to be the scent of sacrifice. In another upper room at his last Passover on earth, Jesus labeled bread and wine as his own body and blood given. John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Passover lamb never just burned, remember, but was cooked, served and eaten as dinner to remind and nourish, to make peace and bring joy. “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us,” Paul wrote, “therefore let us celebrate the feast.”
Three thousand people joined the church that first Christian Pentecost, astounding numbers for the church’s official first day in business. This is hopeful news in a day when all we read about is the church in decline. Thankfully, even among those losing religion, they’re not all losing interest in Christianity’s menu of character, virtue, meaning and hope. Christians don’t always make it easy for people to converse with us about virtue and character. We don’t always practice what we preach, especially us preachers. We can come off, Paul writes, as peddlers of God’s word, accusatory or self-righteous, even when our character is upright. Better to let someone get a whiff and savor the spirit among us first and then tell them the ingredients and show how it’s made. Flavor is an “act of love, a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. It makes people want more.
Reduction leads to true flavor, humiliation to sweet-smelling victory, death to new life. The faith of small children is the best faith there is. Little mustard seeds move entire mountains. A bit of yeast expands a whole loaf. A shaving of nutmeg makes a luscious bolognese. Simmered down by Christ, we discover a deeper intensity of faith, the true flavor of love and the enticing aroma of grace by which people can taste and see the goodness of God, the fire-enhanced sauce of the spirit in us, abundantly sufficient to feed the world.
Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese