By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
One of the more unusual religious pictures I have at home is a Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ in prison. Against a very dark background, Christ appears as he did when the Roman soldiers mocked him as a clown king. He is seated, wearing a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns and holding in one hand a reed to serve as his royal scepter. His feet are shackled, and his hands are tied with a cord. The radiance from his beautiful face does little to interrupt the deep darkness of the dungeon where he is held prisoner.
Yes, Jesus was held as a prisoner from when he was captured in a garden following the Last Supper, to when the next day he expired on the cross.
People thought themselves effective in holding him captive, running him through a travesty of justice, and subjecting him to a particularly gruesome form of capital punishment. After all, he was handled as a prisoner by a security apparatus skilled in dealing with prisoners.
Once this apparatus produced its end product — a corpse — a tomb was donated, and the corpse was buried. Jesus had been effectively contained as a prisoner near the end of his life, and now that he was dead, his containment would be effective as well — or so it appeared. Into the burial chamber the body was placed. The tomb’s entrance was blocked with a boulder. Grieving friends effected this hasty burial.
But the security apparatus that killed him could not rest content. They feared his disciples would remove the body, and then claim that his promise to rise from the dead had come true. So the security apparatus put the tomb under guard, and they sealed the stone so that it would remain undisturbed. They wanted the man they had killed to remain a prisoner in his tomb. They believed they could be successful in doing this.
But the reason we’re here this morning is that they were not successful! They could not — they did not — hold Jesus as a prisoner!
During the time leading up to his execution, he was a prisoner who kept escaping. Nobody could pin him down — not cowardly disciples, not the traitor Judas, not the high priest, not Pilate, not the crowds, not the soldiers. Though shackled and imprisoned, though humiliated and beaten and killed, he was a prisoner who could never be held for long. Time and again, he demonstrated he was free, and that those around him were captives. They were the ones imprisoned — by their fear, their hatred, their faithlessness. They never held him for long. One way or another, he kept escaping their efforts to break him. When he went to his cross and grave, he went willingly.
He kept escaping, and he saved the best escape for last. His final place of confinement was the tomb, a prison made of stone, with the entry way closed and sealed and guarded. But what happens? His friends arrive at the place to find the stone rolled away, and nothing inside the tomb but empty grave clothes! That day and for weeks to come, they are repeatedly surprised to meet Jesus alive again where they least expect him. Not only does he prove stronger than the security apparatus that arrayed itself against him, but he breaks even the power of death. He leaves his tomb behind because he is alive, never to die again. He has pulled off the greatest escape of them all. Only divine power can do this.
Alongside every other image we have of Jesus, let’s add this one: he is the ultimate escaped prisoner. For proof, look to his empty tomb and every other sign that he is alive, from the first Easter morning to his presence among us today. Jesus is alive, out of prison, and at large in the world for which he died.
This escaped prisoner cannot be held by the security apparatus, he cannot be held by the tomb. But he does not escape alone. He calls on us to leave behind a host of jails and prisons in which we are incarcerated. He invites us to follow him into freedom.
The resurrection of Jesus is the model jailbreak. Like a crocus announcing spring, Jesus alive again is the first sign of the resurrection of the dead that will come at the end of time. But it’s even more than that. It also promises a countless number of resurrections — large and small — in your life and mine right now — escapes from jails of every sort.
Each of us has seen the inside of various different prisons. Edward Hays provides us with a list of some of these. [See Edward Hays, The Great Escape Manual: A Spirituality of Liberation. (Forest of Peace Publishing, 2001).] Consider if you are doing time in any of them right now. Consider whether you want to break out.
Are you a captive to the clock and the calendar? That’s Timelock Prison. Do you nurse resentments? That’s Wounded Heart Prison. Or maybe your place of confinement is Angerville Prison, or the Jail of Impatience, or the Penitentiary of Fear, or the Prison of Prejudice, or even the Sacred Penitentiary of Religion. Maybe for you achieving is all that matters. If that’s the case, then you’re behind lock and key in Workhouse Prison. All these are popular places. They’re huge, and they’re bursting at the seams!
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Today we celebrate how Jesus broke out of the ultimate prison. We can trust him to lead us out of that one and any of these others: out of the barred windows, through the barbed wire, over the prison wall, and into the sweet air of freedom. He knows the route. Indeed, he is the route.
But don’t think that this prison escape is a one-time event. It is a matter of past, present, and future. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, illustrated this when asked if he was saved. He replied, “I have been saved, I am being saved, I hoped to be saved.” We can paraphrase this as: I have escaped, I am escaping, and I hope to escape.
Jesus has established his church as a fellowship for those who have escaped, or are escaping, or hope to escape. Everything we’re about as church should help people, whether members or not, break out of the prisons that hold them. The resurrection of Jesus is the greatest escape, and we want resurrections to multiply so that no one is held captive by fear, alienation, death, or any other force of diminishment or destruction. We have it on the highest authority that the Creator offers a world full of far better things for every one of his children.
Today three young cousins will be baptized: Anthony, William, and Tyler. Baptism is dying with Christ, and rising with him to new life. It is our personal Good Friday and Easter, our personal cross and resurrection. It centers us on Jesus, who keeps escaping, and escapes even from death.
To live the baptismal life, to live as a Christian, means realizing this: I have escaped, I am escaping, I hope to escape. It means acting on the sure and certain hope that the prisons we experience are not the last word, but that God intends for us a world of far better things, God’s own realm, not only hereafter, but here and now.
The baptism of Anthony, Tyler, and William provides an opportunity for each of us who is already baptized to renew our Christian commitment. We can give ourselves again to the adventure of being prisoners no more, but children of God who have escaped, are escaping, and hope always to escape out of whatever prison confines us. We can decide to run for all we’re worth into the bold and beautiful future that awaits us, indeed, into the arms of our risen Lord who loves us enough to die for us, and wants us to live with him in freedom forever.