“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1
Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists follows the lives of the four Gold siblings, who grow up in the late 60’s on New York’s Lower East Side. The kids hear rumors about a neighborhood fortune-teller who lives on Hester Street, and their curiosity leads them to pay her a visit. When they find her apartment, in spite of their fear each child meets with the woman separately. She ends up telling every one of them – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – the exact date on which she says they will die. The kids don’t reveal these predictions to each other, but all four children carry the woman’s words from Hester Street into the rest of their lives.
I won’t give too much away, but as you can imagine, the book explores how their lives unfold – and the extent to which the woman’s predictions shape their choices. Simon, the youngest, has the earliest predicted date of death. He heads off to San Francisco, a place that gives him the freedom to live openly as a gay man. He tries hard to avoid thinking about that prediction from his childhood, but at one point he acknowledges: “What if the woman on Hester Street is right? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.”
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”
When we worship on this night each year, I sometimes forget that Jesus knew that he was going to die. He knew what was about to happen. I wonder if everything that night felt to him urgent, glittering, precious.
I don’t think that I would want to know the exact time of my death, but if I did, I wonder how I would spend those final hours. How might you? I’d want time with my family and dearest friends. I’d want to eat some really good food. But I would be pretty selfish with those last moments. I would probably do a lot of indulgent things, whatever would make me feel safe and comfortable.
As he faces his own death, Jesus gathers twelve of his friends around a table. They do share a last meal. They eat together. I imagine there’s a fair amount of laughter and teasing around the table until things get serious. Do this in remembrance of me, Jesus tells them. What is he talking about, they must have wondered. All but Judas, who knows and keeps quiet.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.”
Jesus knows that his death is only hours away, and in those final precious moments he does some surprising things, like washing feet. It was surprising for several reasons. Foot-washing was a servant’s job, for one thing. And it wouldn’t typically have happened in the middle of a meal. It would have happened before they started eating. But there Jesus goes – stripping down and kneeling to hold their feet in his hands.
No wonder Peter is perplexed. No wonder Peter goes from one extreme to another, from “You will never wash my feet!” to “Wash my hands and my head too!”
Jesus knows that he’s about to die, but he washes their feet. The feet of a confused, impulsive Peter. The feet of Judas, feet that will soon run off into the darkness to bring death closer.
Afterwards Jesus asks: “Do you know what I have done to you?” Not “what I have taught you” or “what I have shown you.” What I have done to you. They have experienced something intimate and profound. A moment that will mean even more when he is gone.
But Jesus can’t resist one last lesson: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
On this night when he will be hauled away and set up for execution, Jesus talks a lot about love.
We think of love as primarily a feeling, whether it’s the squishy, hearts-and-flowers feeling of romance or the tender love we feel for our children or the steady, reliable love shared by close friends.
But that’s not the love that Jesus is talking about.
Love can sometimes be about what we think. The ways we appreciate another person’s sense of humor or admire their intellect or engage with their beliefs. What do we have in common? How does he make me laugh? How has she helped me to learn something new?
But that’s not the love that Jesus is talking about either.
There’s nothing wrong with love that opens our hearts and expands our minds. But Jesus is talking about a different kind of love.
A love that feeds people.
A love that touches people, even when they betray us.
A love that gets down on the floor and washes feet.
A love that is willing to face death so that others may have a new kind of life.
Jesus spends his last precious, glittering moments commanding us to live out that kind of love. He knows we won’t do it perfectly.
But he also knows that this down-on-the-floor, foot-washing love will tell a story. A story that will outlive death, whenever it comes.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.