And if you went on these short trips, then you know all about the Mission Trip High (MTH). You came home with grand visions to live your life sold out for Jesus, changing the world before you graduated high school. You promised to read your Bible every day. You vowed to fast once a week. You swore to be the greatest prayer warrior in your church. You were going to be the perfect Christian!
But within days of coming home, the MTH was gone. You were sleeping in till noon. You were loading up on junk food. Your Bible was still packed away in your suitcase. And you figured that since you went on a youth group mission trip, you could excuse yourself from church for the rest of the summer.
As we grew up, we came to call those MTHs a mere emotional experience. We believed that we allowed our feelings to get the best of us; that's why we made the same ridiculous promises after every single mission trip. Let's be honest - those promises were a bit far fetched for anybody.
I would like to argue, though, that something other than out of control teenaged emotions were fueling those MTHs. In fact, I will say that for those of us who spent a week or two of our high school summers serving on mission trips, we were fulfilling Christ's words to His disciples in John 15.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus gave these final words to His closest friends.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:5-8 ESV)
How do we interpret those words, "Abide in me....I in you?" For years, I was taught that the answer was found in the spiritual disciplines: read your Bible, pray daily, fast regularly, etc. And indeed, these are important activities for any follower of Jesus. But Jesus does not exhort his Disciples to a life of prayer and meditation. Not here, anyway.
Jesus' emphasis is on direct action. Let's look further.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11 ESV)
Now wait a minute. Did Jesus say what I think he said? Did he actually say that we will earn Jesus' love by following His commands?
No. He said that we would abide in His love. In other words, we would live in accordance with His love if we follow His commandments. Or we would become more aware of His love if we follow His commandments. That is the model Christ sets for us; He kept His Father's commandments and so rested in His Father's love.
And what is Jesus' commandment? He couldn't be more clear.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14 ESV)
The love of Jesus bore good fruit in the physical world. The love of Jesus wasn't only about storing treasures in heaven; Jesus loved in order to showcase the Kingdom of God is in our midst right now.
John 15 is sandwiched between two profound acts of service. In John 13, Jesus washes His disciples feet, a humiliating duty reserved for the lowest of servants. In John 18 and following, Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Jesus puts flesh on His own words - "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."
For three years, the twelve disciples were first-hand witnesses to the kind of love that Jesus honors. Jesus healed the sick, he embraced the crippled, he protected the lowly, he advocated for the poor. Not only that, but Jesus loved the enemy of the nation of Israel by healing a Roman Centurion's son. Jesus loved the enemy of the weak by dining with the Pharisees. Jesus loved the enemy of the Law by sojourning for a while in unclean Samaria.
Jesus loved His twelve disciples even as they misunderstood his teachings, as they asked banal questions, even as His own disciples questioned Jesus' agenda. For all of their mistakes, Jesus called these twelve men his friends, and that should be a great comfort to us as we struggle to live and love well. (Although, it should be noted that Jesus had sent Judas away from the table by this point in the narrative).
And what of our teenaged MTHs? Think about it. If you went on those kind of trips, you made sacrifices. If you had a summer job, then you sacrificed a week's worth of income, no matter how small it was. If you had summer athletic training, you gave up a week of strength conditioning to serve. If you hated hard labor and early mornings, you sacrificed your right to sleeping in and comfort. If you harbored prejudices against the poor or people of color, than you sacrificed your biases in order to serve another human. If you didn't care much for your colleagues in your youth ministry, then you sacrificed your pride (or fear) and forced yourself to serve with new friends. Jesus honors all of these sacrifices, and in making such sacrifices, you opened yourself up to understand God's love in new ways.
What's the takeaway? Christian, if you are longing to know Jesus' love for you, then here is your answer - love your neighbor as Jesus would love them. That is no "social justice gospel;" those are the very words of our Lord and Savior. While much good can be said for a life of prayer and meditation - and indeed, Jesus expects us to fast and pray - none of those disciplines will make any sense until you put on some work boots and serve.
I am reminded of words from a local pastor that I heard nearly a decade ago. "An over-exposure to Truth with no response will lead to a hard heart."
Why did the MTH disappear? You stopped following Jesus command to love one another, so you ceased to abide in Jesus love. If you grew up believing that reading and memorizing God's word was the key to joy in God's Kingdom, then maybe you were confused when sustained joy never came with an increased head knowledge of His Word. That's because Jesus doesn't ask us to live life tucked away in an ivory steeple. Jesus calls us to love one another by practicing the wisdom of the Scriptures in the real world. To love one another is a command so simple that twelve rapscallions, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, were able to build God's church on this earth.
So go forth, serve, and get your Mission Trip High, and then work that high day by day by loving your neighbor as Christ commands us to. And may you find your rest by abiding in the Vine who supplies you with all that you need.
Until next time,