Landscape with Stars, Henri-Edmond Cross,
c. 1905–1908, Met. Museum (NYC)
(About this Image)
The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2022
St. Paul is a great religious genius. It is incorrect to say that he
invented Christianity, but he understood many of the implications of
Jesus’ teaching sooner and more strongly than others. As the Christian
Church developed, his thought eventually influenced what Christians
everywhere believed. This however took over a century and I cannot help
but ask “What did Christians who did not know the writings of Paul
The answer is largely unknowable, but this section from the Letter to
the Philippians gives us an indication of past possibilities and a
prescription for present maladies.
Phillippi was a commercial city. It was built on trade and some light
“manufacturing.” It would have attracted many different people and it is
thought many who were Christians but not catechized by Paul or indeed
any of the major inspired writers such as Matthew or Luke passed through
Although scholars have examined this section in depth, they are not
able to tell us exactly what these other Christians believed. We can get
an idea from some of Paul’s comments. There was perhaps a lack of
discipline: “their God is their stomach,” an insufficient understanding
of the cross: “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross,” and a less
than firm grasp of the meaning of resurrection: “he will change our
lowly body to conform with is glorified body.” This is not surprising.
Someone reviewing tweets and emails 2,000 year from now will see that
there were many who thought of themselves as “spiritual but not
religious” but would be quite uncertain what this meant.
What we do know is that Paul responded by emphasizing Christianity as
a way of life that is based on Jesus.
The most famous section of the letter is the great hymn of
Philippians. It is familiar but bears reading in its entirety.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
It is not enough to know about Jesus to live like him. What Jesus
offers cannot settle in our frontal lobes but must become part of us. We
are told to “have the same mind that is in Jesus” not have complete
mastery of his teachings. The reality of Jesus is that he is God but to
save us “emptied himself” of all that went with it, all the privileges
and power to made himself a slave. Finally, he offered himself on the
cross. It is for this that he is exalted.
Paul will spend a chapter developing the theme that a Christian
spends his or her life seeking to become more and more like Jesus. He
has shared his sufferings with the Philippians and shown them that it
was not through his accomplishments that he became more like Jesus, but
his sufferings allowed him to know him and “the power of his
resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his
death, (Php 3:10).
Through this he has become spiritually mature. In the passage
immediately before today’s selection Paul writes:
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Let us, then, who are “perfectly mature” adopt this attitude.
And if you have a different attitude,
this too God will reveal to you. Only, with regard to what we have
continue on the same course.
He therefore has the right to claim the role of mentor and guide.
Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers,
and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us
That a philosopher would be judged not only by what he taught but by
how he lived would be understandable to all his hearers and I hope to us
as well. But note he says, “join with others”: look at the entire
church. Paul looks at others who called themselves Christians and asks
to be judged. Their gospel may seem more attractive or at least easier
but how do they live?
Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their “shame.”
Their minds are occupied with earthly things
The cross is demanding but it allows us to share the true glory of
God. The cross directs us to another dimension.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ
This intentionally touches a nerve. Most people in the Roman empire
could not imagine any security greater than being a Roman citizen. It
provided protection in more ways than we can imagine. For instance, a
Roman citizen could not be crucified but also, as we see in Paul, could
demand to be tried by the emperor and not to for sport before then. Many
of Paul’s listeners would have done anything to become a Roman
But Paul is telling them that they have something better, their
citizenship is in heaven. Emperors called themselves saviors because of
the gifts they provided. This was not delusional. The emperors provided
peace and security for millions of people throughout the Mediterranean.
This was important and praiseworthy. Our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also to bring
all things into subjection to himself
Because of his humility, Jesus was glorified and we should ask the
same and sing the Philippians’ hymn with our lives not just our voices.
We too will then be joined to his body. This is a greater reward than
the Pax Romona and shows a greater power. Caesar could bring
most of his known world under his power, Jesus brings the entire
universe under his.
We see with Paul that it takes genius that few ever had to show us
the centrality of the cross, but it takes a humility that is offered to
all to accept the salvation that comes from it.