Don’t let your mouth write checks that your body can’t cash.
I’ve cleaned it up a bit — we are in church, after all — but you may be familiar with the original, more colorful version. What does it mean? Well, talk is cheap. What’s important is whether you can back up what you say with what you do. We even have something like that in the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer:
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days (BCP 2019, p. 25).
The prayer calls us not to lip service only, but to life service. There’s a difference, and sometimes it’s a big one.
If you’ve lived any length of time at all, you’ve probably lived the reality of the old saying; you’ve written checks with your mouth that your body couldn’t cash. You’ve spoken rashly without weighing the consequences. You’ve said yes when you really didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. Surely, everyone who is or has been married knows this. You stood before God and family and friends and said “Yes” and “I do” to promises that no one in his right mind would say yes to. That was the easy part. Living out those vows? Well that’s more challenging, especially when better becomes worse, richer becomes poorer, and health becomes sickness. That’s when you find out if your body can cash the check that your mouth wrote.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know — really know — what you were getting yourself into before you spoke, or, barring that, if you had the chance to change your mind before things got too difficult? Imagine this — and many of us will have to go back in time to do so. You tell a friend that you and your spouse have decided to start a family. Right there, you’ve just written a big check, an enormous check. Stay with me. Imagine your friend — who is a parent — now paints a very vivid picture of what the first few months of parenthood look like: new routines that are anything but routine, sleepless nights, confusion, worry, helplessness, diapers, expense, and crying; sometimes it’s even the baby who’s crying. Would you change your mind? If not, why not? Hold those questions in mind.
The lectionary does us a bit of disservice today in telling only the end of a larger story that needs to be held together. It is really a play in three acts, and we get only Act III. So, let’s go back to the beginning, Act I:
Luke 9:18–20 (ESV): Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Here, Peter has just let his mouth write a big check, an enormous check, and he has no real idea what he’s gotten himself into. Truly confessing Jesus as Christ with your lips also requires confessing Jesus as Christ with your life. Remember the General Thanksgiving?
…not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days.
And now, like the friend painting the vivid picture of the first few months of parenthood, Jesus tells Peter, and all the Twelve, just what such a confession means, what it will look like. Act II:
Luke 9:21–27 (ESV): 21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
It’s easy, perhaps, to say that Jesus is Christ — an easy check to write with our mouths. But cashing that check — by giving up ourselves to his service and by walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days — well, that’s not always so easy. It always involves self-denial, a very real and continual death to self. It always involves the cross, a very real and unique suffering for the sake of Christ. It may involve rejection and persecution. It may involve death, not figuratively, but actual, painful, premature death.
The Service of Holy Baptism is a gracious moment in the life of an individual, a family, a Church community, and the Kingdom. But — and please forgive me — I sometimes wonder if it’s a bit sanguine, a bit rosy in the face of real challenges to follow. In saying the baptismal vows, our mouths write lots of checks:
Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and confess him as your Lord and Savior?
Do you joyfully receive the Christian Faith, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments?
Will you obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of your life?
We answer “I do” or “I will” to all these. But I doubt most of us have any real idea what we’re getting ourselves into. Far be it from me to revise the liturgy, but these words should appear somewhere, at least in our baptismal preparation:
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
We should not write checks without counting the cost. We should not be baptized without counting the cross.
Now, back to my earlier question about having children. Once your friend painted the vivid picture of all the difficulties of parenthood, would you change your mind? If not, why not? My wife and I didn’t. We have children running around the church — thanks be to God! — and that says their parents didn’t. But, why not? Why run headlong into the struggles and sacrifices of parenthood? Because they are only part of the story. The joys of parenthood far outweigh the sacrifices required. Parents lay down their lives for their children and it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice at all, but a privilege. This part of the story has to be told, as well. Yes, we write checks with our mouths. Yes, our bodies sometimes struggle to cash them. But, in the best moments, the good that we acquire far surpasses every sacrifice we made. And that brings us to Act III:
Luke 9:28–36 (ESV): 28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
Confess Jesus as Christ. Take up your cross. Lay down your life. But that is not the whole story. On the other side of all the sacrifices lies glory: the glory of the voice of God, the glory of the light of Christ eclipsing all lesser things, the glory of the only begotten Son of God radiant and dazzling. And Peter, who witnessed this as far as he was able tells us:
2 Peter 1:3–4a (ESV): His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.
Partakers of the divine nature: the glory that is Christ’s by nature, he shares with us by grace, so that we, too, may be transfigured into his likeness, from glory to glory. That’s why we can say with our lips that Jesus is Christ. That’s how we can take up our cross and lay down our lives. That is how, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can cash the check our mouth has written. Keep the glory of Christ always before your eyes. Amen.