Brothers and sisters:
Be kind to one another,
and mutually forgiving,
just as God has forgiven you in Christ.
Be imitators of God
as his dear children.
Follow the way of love,
even as Christ loved you.
He gave himself for us
as an offering to God,
a gift of pleasing fragrance. (Eph 4:32—5:2)
I say the words of this opening line at least once a day to my children—Brothers and sisters: be kind to one another. I have a freshman in high school and a fourth grader and a third grader. Two boys and the youngest is a girl. Brothers and sisters: be kind to one another. Anyone else have siblings? I myself have two sisters and I remember my mom, exasperated after hours of refereeing bouts, just throwing up her hands and saying, “I don’t care what you do to one another. Just don’t kill each other.”
This whole reading has a benign, parental ring to it that is easy to dismiss. Paul trips along with pleasantries: imitate God as dear children; follow the way of love. It sounds like the kind of reprimand you might get from your grandmother. Even the last line seems to fit right in with that tone: “(Christ) gave himself for us as an offering to God, a gift of pleasing fragrance.” Doesn’t it sound nice? “A gift of pleasing fragrance”—it kind of sits there like a bouquet of flowers at the end of this reading.
If it were just that simple, though—if Paul’s aim were simply to encourage the Ephesians to be nice—I doubt the Christian faithful would have clung to his letter for two millennia.
And I know neither I nor my mother wanted brothers and sisters to simply stop short of murder.
Shall we investigate further?
A gift of pleasing fragrance. . .
I wonder what Jesus smelled during his life on earth. I have no doubt there were many unpleasant smells on dusty roads and among large crowds in a hot climate, but what pleasing fragrances did he take in?
Frankincense and myrrh from an early age.
Fresh cut wood.
The breeze over fresh water.
Perfumed oil poured over his feet.
Fish, freshly caught, frying over a fire.
Scents of home and travel; scents of labor, scents of longing, scents of sorrow.
These smells are all hard-earned.
That phrase—“a gift of pleasing fragrance”—comes from Exodus, as Paul knew well:
Then take one of the rams, and after Aaron and his sons have laid their hands on its head, slaughter it. The blood you shall take and splash on all the sides of the altar. Cut the ram into pieces; you shall wash its inner organs and shanks and put them with the pieces and with the head. Then you shall burn the entire ram on the altar, since it is a burnt offering, a sweet-smelling oblation to the LORD. (Ex 29:15-18)
Paul’s “gift of pleasing fragrance” is the sweet-smelling scent of sacrifice—flayed flesh and butchered bone burned as an offering.
It is useful to dig into Exodus for this description because the concept of sacrificing an animal in the Temple is familiar to most of us and we tend to gloss over it as though it were easy and simple. But imagine everything that went into the endeavor: raising the animal alone took an investment of months. Then handling it and transporting it. Slaughtering it, butchering it, disposing of the blood and the organs and the shanks.
This is difficult and costly labor.
Yet Scripture makes clear that even greater than the physical sacrifice of an animal is the spiritual sacrifice of the heart. The psalmist writes:
For you do not desire sacrifice . . . a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn. (Ps 51:17)
So, on closer examination, this benign command to make a “gift of pleasing fragrance” is where this reading bares its teeth—Paul gives us a biting definition of what it means to follow Christ’s way of love. He calls us to invest our bodies—our flesh and bones—into self-sacrificial love. To give ourselves to others, as Christ gave himself for us.
This is not a reminder to simply be kind to one another—this is not a command to change our attitude. (As the parent of a teenager, trust me: that never works.)
Paul is asking us to slaughter our wills, and cut out our hearts, and give them away to be consumed.
We all know what this looks like. It is quite ordinary—there is nothing fragrant or pleasing about it. For me it looks like making sandwiches before the sun rises. Drilling math facts with patience. Listening with rapt attention to something about Pokémon or Minecraft that makes no sense. Doing dishes so someone can finish homework. Doing laundry, which, in our house, smells a lot like working with a ram BEFORE it is roasted.
But to God, loving in these small, repeated ways is pleasing and fragrant. If we offer these acts as a gift, as a sacrifice, they soften our hearts. They invite others to have a claim on us. This is how we give our life away, only to find it. This is how we imitate God as God’s dear children.
So as we head into Holy Week, let’s heed Paul’s urging:
Let’s be mutually forgiving.
Let’s follow the way of love, even as Christ loved us.
Let’s give ourselves away as an offering to God, a gift of pleasing fragrance.
Josh Noem is the Editor of FaithND.