“Coffin Confusion” Easter 2017 John 20:1-18
What would you be caught dead in? You know the old saying that goes, “I’d never be caught in that!” But have you ever thought about what you would be caught dead in?
According to John’s gospel, Jesus was caught dead wearing a linen wrapping, and earlier, a crown of thorns, and a purple robe. The place picked for his final resting-place was a cave on the property of Joseph of Arimathea. Yet on that first Easter morning, it seems that the linen cloth has been shed. The tomb echoes with emptiness. As if Jesus had in effect told his disciples and all of creation: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that tomb.”
What would you be caught dead in? I don’t think too many of you would be caught dead in a leisure suit or with a beehive hairdo; or caught dead in a Nehru jacket or Bermuda shorts or a clown suit. And those who still know all the lyrics to “Blowing in the Wind” today would not be caught dead in bell-bottoms, or paisley shirts.
And for those of you who may not know what I am talking about, just Goggle “1960’s Fashion.” Trust me, it won’t be a pretty sight.
Image is reality. That’s why we groom it so carefully in our culture.
Knowing this, several online casket companies can now help us make a final statement that expresses our personality for all eternity! They are called “art caskets” for those who want to be caught dead in something unique. No longer must the discriminating consumer choose merely between a traditional wooden box or a bronze coffin.
These companies can assist you in selecting a casket that not only houses you or your loved one’s body after death, but it also serves as “an epilogue echoing the richness of a life fulfilled. Whether bold and vivid or soft and subdued, they are as unforgettable as the life they commemorate” says one of the websites.
The owners of F&F Metals figure that people today want everything tailored specifically to their personal sense of style. As one of the company owners explains “My generation craves choice and personal expression. That’s what this is … your final statement. If you’re going to buy a casket anyway, why buy a blank? No one’s life was a blank.”
The exteriors are decorated with full-color photographs, artwork, and imagery that reflect the life of the deceased. And the choices are many, and they are beautiful.
If you are a golfer, you might choose the “Fairway to Heaven” or “The Last Hole” model. Or if a NASCAR fan there is “The Race is Over.” Other popular art caskets include depictions of the painter Monet’s Water Lillies, the national flag of any country, beach scenes, and a view of the New York skyline. Or, if you want to ensure a bit of levity at the graveside, you might choose the model portraying a postal package that says in bold red letters “Return to Sender.”
Now I am not trying to make fun of death; minimized the pain & grief; or make fun of coffins. But the truth is that the notion of individualized coffins and personalized “final statements” is not so new after all.
Many millenniums before these art casket companies existed; it was common in numerous cultures to personalize one’s final resting-place. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were masters of this practice many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Tomb prep began long before a person’s death in the land of the Pharaohs, with artisans and craftsmen employed to turn a coffin into a final statement about who was inside it and what that deceased person had accomplished in life.
A king’s coffin would be carved to resemble his palace, reminding mortals and immortals alike that he had been a person of great power. A noblewoman might rest in a coffin painted in black with gold images detailing the life she led and the life she could expect to lead in eternity.
King Tut, the 16-year-old king, was not a particularly important ruler and yet his 3,500-year-old coffin still testifies to his family’s wealth and love for him. Created of stones, gold, and glass, King Tut’s coffin makes an impressive final statement.
For the ancient Egyptians, much like the customers of art caskets, a coffin was not merely a simple, rectangular box. It was a symbol of one’s personality and uniqueness. It told a story.
And while the ancient Egyptians selected personal items, from hair pins to game pieces, to be included within the coffin in preparation for meeting the gods in the afterlife, it seems they were as confused about the particulars of eternity as we are today. Some ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife involved a time of eternal calm resembling an everlasting picnic on the sunny banks of the Nile. Others believed they would be transformed into a fresh body and begin a new life.
Into all this coffin confusion, Easter morning injects a single core conviction: The tomb is empty. The tomb is barren. The tomb is blank. The tomb is bare. This unexpectedly empty tomb is God’s final statement to a questioning world.
But what does it mean? People today aren’t interested in blank caskets or even caskets at all, so it is hard to see the significance of a tomb that is echoing with emptiness. There was nothing in Jesus’ burial or gravesite to indicate that he lived a unique life.
- No cave drawings told his story.
- No painted coffin offered last words or images to convey the teachings or the healings.
- No golden trinkets were buried with Jesus to indicate his royal lineage or his divine power.
Jesus was placed in a fresh cave in a garden, and a large rock sealed the opening. That was it. The grave and entombment were perfectly common and ordinary. At least they seemed to be ordinary.
But looking back, there are clues lying around the empty tomb that indicate that this was actually an awesome individual with the most uncommon of lives. There is evidence that even his death seemed to be an inspired event, borne out of some supernatural design.
Look at the setting: a garden. The Passion of Jesus had begun with prayer in one garden on the Mount of Olives the night he was betrayed, and it ended in another garden, the location of his tomb. Mary thought that Jesus was a gardener when he first spoke to her outside the tomb. Was this some sort of statement about new life?
In all of the confusion of Easter morning, and perhaps in the midst of our own stress and confusion, God has made a final statement that outdoes any final statement we aspire to declare: The tomb was empty. Upon this they all agree: the women; the disciples; the authorities; the scholars; even the skeptics. All concur that Jesus would not be caught dead in that cave. The tomb echoes with emptiness. It is a reality that challenges us to embark on a journey of faith that can include being caught alive by the Risen Christ.
If we join Mary in waiting and wondering outside the tomb, we can join millions in the experience of having Jesus call us by name and lead us into the way of life that is beyond any lasting catch of death.
Jesus would not be caught dead in that tomb.
Jesus prefers being caught alive outside the tomb:
- Seen in the garden,
- Along the road to Emmaus the evening of that first Easter day,
- In the faces of people who have experienced resurrection and know it comes from God,
- In the eyes of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the immigrant, & the disenfranchised.
- Caught alive – in you.
This is the real question after all. Not, what wouldn’t you be caught dead in, but what would you be caught alive in?
- Caught alive in a meaningful life?
- Caught alive in a forgiven life?
- Caught alive in an empowered life?
- Caught alive in a fresh start at life?
Here’s the point: If you’re not caught alive, you will be caught dead. And no one, least of all Jesus who died for us and rose from the dead, wants that.
The tomb is empty. This is God’s final statement to all of creation.
The tomb is empty. This is truly our final statement.
People of God, the tomb is empty!
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, 4/2017