Sabbath Day Thoughts – “Live in Love” – Ephesians 4:25-5:2
We need love. The groundbreaking research of behavioral scientists like Harry Harlow and John Bowles determined that humans have a hard-wired biological need to experience love. Their findings revealed that babies who are deprived of contact comfort and love during the first six months of life suffer long-lasting harm. Even into adulthood, they can experience psychological damage that increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and difficulty in relationships. We also need to give love. Each of us has an innate need to love and care for others. It’s what compels us to pinch the cheeks of babies, say “Aww!” when we see a cute puppy, or make a generous donation to the Crisis Care Nursery when we hear about those at-risk orphans. It’s safe to say that God created us with the intent of giving and receiving love.
No one was better versed in the importance of love for human development than broadcaster and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers. Once a lonely child himself with respiratory issues, Fred was sensitive to the insecurities and needs of children. The love and affirmation of his grandfather, the original Mr. McFeely, helped Fred through those early years. As the grown-up Fred saw the vapid humor and violence of children’s television, he thought, surely, we can do better. He resolved to use tv to encourage kids to know that they mattered. From 1968 until 2001, his show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was broadcast nationally on public television. In 895 episodes, Mr. Rogers was all about love. Fred said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest people.”
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians also emphasized the importance of love. The apostle spent more than two years in the busy Aegean port of Ephesus sharing the good news, spending five hours daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, relating the story and teachings of Jesus. All that gospel, coupled with extraordinary miracles, made for a vibrant and growing church. In summarizing the Way of Jesus, Paul exhorted his friends to “live in love.” He began by describing all the things that love is not: dishonesty, harbored anger, thievery, malicious gossip, and slander. Wise pastor that he was, Paul knew that these behaviors undermine the fabric of a community.
We can attest to the truth of Paul’s teaching. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? says that dishonesty undermines trust, the primary connective tissue of a relationship. Without trust and the sense of safety that it brings, our relationships cannot grow in a healthy manner. Likewise, Dr. Randi Gunther cautions that unresolved anger can sabotage our connections with those we care about, whether our anger manifests as nitpicking, withdrawal, snapping, or tantrums. Once we are in an angry interaction, we can rapidly go from friends to adversaries, unable to see beyond our emotional survival. We resort to distance for our emotional safety and resist working through the conflict to get at the underlying feelings and concerns. We also all know from personal experience how painful it is to be targeted by gossip. It spreads lies, tarnishes reputations, and ruins relationships. Dishonesty, harbored anger, and sins of speech, when these destructive behaviors become endemic to a family, community, or church, they create an unsafe emotional space where no one truly feels welcomed, accepted, or loved.
Paul expected better of the Ephesians—and us. He reminds us that our true purpose is agape, the generous, other-interested love that acts out of concern for the well-being of others. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, describes agape as “kenotic love,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means to “pour out.” In agape we pour out ourselves in the best interest of others. There isn’t anything in it for us. Agape is self-sacrificing, forgiving, and kind.
Agape is a healer and a community builder. A Penn State study considered the effect of feeling loved upon individuals. They asked subjects to report the brief experiences of love and connection that they had in everyday life: a caring text, a meaningful interaction with a friend, a sweet kindness from a family member, the random niceness of strangers. The researchers learned that the subjects who had more experiences of love and connection also had significantly higher levels of psychological well-being, including feelings of optimism and purpose.
Fred Rogers didn’t need a scientific study to tell him that. He simply believed that all people feel better and are happier when loved. In his testimony before a Senate panel in 1969, Rogers described the ethic that undergirded his children’s programming, saying, “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we… can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men [be portrayed] working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing… gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing.”
Like Fred Rogers, we instinctively know the power of kindness and love to build-up one another, but we sometimes struggle to be loving. We get really angry. Sometimes it is justified. We can be less than honest or may resort to lies because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to represent ourselves in a bad light, or we want to try to stay in control of a situation where we feel out of our depth. We can use language in ways that hurt, whether we speak rashly, raise our voices, betray a confidence, or put someone down so that we can feel better about who we are. We hear Paul’s wise exhortation to “live in love,” but it isn’t always easy.
We are only able to forge the capacity to be a people who live in agape when we consider the example of Jesus. His life was a long unfolding of agape. In agape, Jesus chose to heal hurting people on the sabbath day, even when the scribes insisted that he was violating the Torah. In agape, Jesus welcomed sinners, scandalizing the Pharisees. In agape, Jesus was crucified, taking on the sin of the world and reconciling us to God and one another. In agape, Jesus forgave even his executioners as they nailed him to the cross and gambled for his robe. Jesus poured out his life in “kenotic love.” It is when we ponder the enormity of what Jesus has done for us that we begin to understand agape. It is in following Jesus, what Paul described as being “imitators” of Jesus, that agape begins to take shape in our lives. We care, we share kindness, we forgive, we learn to live in love.
Researchers say that agape is good for us. Dr. Raj Raganathan, who teaches at the University of Texas, has found that when we express love and compassion for others, it makes us happier. In a study, students were given a gift of either $5 or $20 with the instruction that they could do with it as they wish, either spending it on themselves or spending it on someone else. The study found that those students who chose to spend their windfall on others grew happier than those who kept it for themselves, regardless of whether they were spending $5 or $20. That desire to love and care that each of us is born with brings happiness when it is generously exercised. Our agape helps others, and yet we benefit, too. I suspect that Jesus and the Apostle Paul knew that, too.
In one of his last public addresses, Fred Rogers delivered the commencement speech for Dartmouth University’s Class of 2002. Mr. Rogers shared one of his favorite stories, seeking to impart the ethic of other-interested love and care that he hoped those best and brightest of young people would embrace. The story was about the Seattle Special Olympics. There were nine “differently-abled” contestants for the hundred-yard dash. They assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell. He hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying, slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, saying, “This’ll make it better”. And the little boy got up. Then, all the runners linked their arms and joyfully walked to the finish line together. Everyone in the crowd stood up, clapped, whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. Mr. Rogers said that deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then. He went on to quote Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the last of the great Roman philosophers, who said, “Oh happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled, as is the universe, by love.”
Sisters and brothers, let us live in love.
Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Exegetical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Gunther, Randi. “How Anger Affects Intimate Relationships” in Psychology Today, August 30, 2019. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
Ward, Richard F. “Homiletical Perspective on Eph. 4:25-5:2” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
–. “Fred Rogers” in Biography. Accessed online at biography.com.
Penn State. “Feeling Loved in Everyday Life Linked with Improved Well-being” in Science Daily, Nov. 25, 2019. Accessed online at sciencedaily.com.
Rogers, Fred. “Dartmouth College Commencement Speech, 2002 in Rev Speech to Text Services. Accessed online at https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/fred-rogers-mr-rogers-commencement-speech-transcript-2002-at-dartmouth-college.
Raghnathan, Raj. “The Need to Love” in Psychology Today, Jan. 8, 2014. Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.
–. “About Fred” in Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. Accessed online at https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-fred.