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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

May, 2013

If this were like previous years, it would be time for my nineteenth annual column about the balloons that used to decorate our church on Easter Sunday morning. It would have been nice to make it to twenty. But I said “used to.” The balloons are no more. Last year was the final year for them. I didn’t even reach nineteen years. This year, there was talk about “something special” to replace them but there were no balloons. After church, there was a slide show of past years’ balloons and previous balloon launches but that was all.

As often happens, though, the really important thing happened before church. Someone asked young Henry if he knew what Easter was about and he replied that it was about “Jesus and the big thing.” “The big thing” was Henry’s way of describing the cross. And of course he was right. From Henry’s perspective, the cross is physically “big” but for us it’s also big—in fact, huge—in its significance.

The balloons aren’t “the big thing” or the central thing about Easter, even at Maplewood United Methodist. They’re an old, beloved and important tradition. But human traditions can’t deliver us from sin and death. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for giving more weight to their human traditions than obedience to God (Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13). Paul wrote to the Galatians that he had been “extremely zealous . . . for the traditions of my fathers. But . . . he . . . called me by his grace, [and] was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,” (Gal. 1:14b; 15b-16a ESV). We don’t remember Paul for the way he observed the traditions of his ancestors but we do remember him for what happened when he turned away from those same traditions and “preach[ed] him among the Gentiles”. And he warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Gal. 2:8 ESV). Any tradition that doesn’t glorify Christ in some way isn’t worth following.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “. . . the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18 ESV). The message of the cross is nothing to the world around us but to us it’s “the big thing.” Christ “is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph. 2:14-16 ESV).

There was hostility between us and God. It was a natural result of our sinful nature (Eph. 2:1-3; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). Because of this hostility, the message of the cross is a “stumbling block” to those who don’t believe but to us it’s the message of salvation (I Cor. 1:23-24). Of course, traditions can cause people to stumble too (Matt. 23:15) but only the message of the cross can lead us to salvation. We couldn’t bring about reconciliation but God could and did.

Sure, I miss the balloons. I’ve learned a great deal because of them over the last eighteen years, and if you’ve been reading my humble efforts I hope you have too. I like all our other Easter traditions at Maplewood United Methodist and I’d miss any of them if we couldn’t observe them any more. But the traditions aren’t important. The cross is. We’re not called to share our traditions but to share the message of the cross, “the big thing.”

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. . . . you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Gal. 2:8-10; 12b-14 ESV.)

Copyright © 2013 by David Phelps