A few years ago the action/adventure hit of the summer was the Nicholas Cage movie The Rock It is set in San Francisco, and the plot concerns a terrorist takeover of the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island. To defeat them the U.S. government must break into the prison. Who better to break into the prison than someone who had previously escaped from Alcatraz? But Alcatraz had been so secure that only one man had ever escaped from it, and that is the man to whom the government turned in desperation.
And what, you might well ask, does The Rock have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
The gospel of Easter Day is great, good news, indeed: Jesus rose from the dead. If you will, he escaped from the prison of death that awaits each of us. The great hymns of Easter celebrate this aspect of the Feast of the Resurrection: “He is risen, he is risen! Tell it out with joyful voice: he has burst his three days’ prison; let the whole wide earth rejoice.”
But the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is even better news: No sooner had Christ broken out of the prison of death than he broke into the prison of fear in which his followers were still trapped.
Nothing illustrates this better than the story in John 20.19-31: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus’ followers had not yet grasped the reality of the resurrection; they had not yet begun to live into the meaning of Easter.
Easter is about Christ’s escape from the tomb, but it is not about his escape from his humanity. The miracle of Easter is not so much that Christ rose from the dead; if he was the Son of God, that is what one would expect. The miracle is that he remains bound by love to his followers, and comes to be with us in the trials, hardships, and fears of human life.
The Rock is a misleading movie. Its makers would have us believe that Alcatraz was the most secure prison in the world. However, the thickest prison walls are those of the prison of fear in which so many live. And yet fear is a prison locked from the inside; the key is always in our hands.
The taste of fear is all too familiar to us: the disciples feared the Jewish authorities, the child fears the dark. and all of us fear death. But the Christ who “burst his three days prison” specializes in breaking into the prisons of fear that we build for ourselves.
Charles Wesley put it well in his hymn “And can it be”:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
When we live into the promise of the resurrection, we can let go of fear, and take hold of the promise of the Risen Christ: “Peace be with you”. Even in the midst of fear, the Risen Christ comes to speak peace. But he gives us more than a word; he gives us himself. Just as the Risen Christ stretched out his wounded hands to Thomas, he stretches them out to us.