When Jesus walked on the earth, Peter walked beside him. Peter witnessed his miracles and heard Jesus preach first-hand. What better basis could there be for a strong faith, a great fidelity to Jesus, the Son of God?
Yet Peter's faith was paper thin. When Jesus said that he had to suffer and die, Peter rebuked him saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you" (Matthew 16:22). And when Jesus was taken prisoner, Peter denied him three times out of fear for his own safety.
But after Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension to the Father, Peter became a different man. Rather than his faith fading because Jesus was no longer around to inspire it, Peter became a dynamic leader and endured persecution and eventual martyrdom for his faith.
Why? What happened to transform Peter?
Simply put, Jesus' ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit led the disciples to seek higher things. The ascension pointed the way -- the hearts and minds of Jesus' followers must rise above the earth, rise above what is accessible to the senses.
Paul's letter to the Colossians put it succinctly: "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the Father. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (3:1-2).
As long as Peter set his mind "on things that are on earth," he would have no faith. Indeed if salvation comes from what is visible, there is no need for faith. We have everything that is needed within our grasp. But the ascension calls Jesus' followers to genuine faith -- "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
With his passion and resurrection, Jesus ceased to perform miracles. He spent the time between his resurrection and ascension establishing his church, the means through which we receive salvation.
With his ascension, Jesus remained in bodily form, he took his human nature and integrated it into the Godhead. By doing so, he completed our redemption and gave us access to the Father. With the ascension, Jesus did not abandon us. He became present to us in new ways. He is with us when two or more gather in his name and he is physically present in the Eucharist. Moreover, Jesus intercedes on our behalf with the Father. He is a high priest "who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
We have a new way of being with Jesus. His Spirit is with us to give us faith in higher things. We are called to strip off our old selves which were rooted in earthly passions such as fornication, impurity, greed, anger, abusive language and slander. And we will be clothed with a new self full of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love (see Colossians 3:5-15).
Peter wore this new self after Christ's ascension had raised his mind above the earth and the descent of the Holy Spirit gave him the power to lead this new life. It was a life which would seem utterly foolish to those whose minds were distracted by earthly things. To them, Peter would appear to be the one who was distracted and lacking in normal ambition.
But setting his mind on things that are above led him to see the cares of this world as dross. Eventually life itself meant nothing to him. If preserving his life involved compromising the things that are above then life was an impediment to salvation. He would have to be willing to let that life go.
Tertullian, an early church father, wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." This is true in that martyrdom points the way to what is most real and most important -- the unseen Savior sitting at the right hand of the Father. Our lives are so much more worthy if they too bear witness to a faith in Jesus which will not be compromised by the things of the earth.
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