Welcome back to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast, with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Today’s question comes from a listener named Morgan. “Dear Pastor John, it seems to me that some churches are more solemn when they ‘celebrate’ the Lord’s Supper. Other churches seem to be more cheerful in the reminder of what Jesus has done for us. Is this a false dichotomy? What is the proper tone of the Lord’s Table — solemn or cheerful?”
I think the main thing I want to say is that it is not a decision for children to make. It’s not a decision for immature people with little experience of suffering and sorrow and sustaining grace to make.
How to do the Lord’s Supper is a decision for battle-proven, scarred, rugged warriors of the faith who have come through much suffering with eyes bright and lips smiling and hearts full of joyful hope and tears running down their faces. They’re the ones who would know how to design a service for every level of Christian.
Children and immature people with little life experience don’t have the kind of complex emotional categories that are necessary to create the kind of atmosphere that reflects the realities of the Lord’s Supper.
“The Lord’s Supper recalls the most painful, the most sinful, the most sorrowful act in the history of the world.”
Children are either bouncing off the walls happy, or they’re moody or angry or sullen or crying. Children have never experienced a kind of sorrow in which they wept for two hours while rejoicing from the bottom of their heart, like I did when my mother died 43 years ago.
Children don’t have the experience of being shamed for the name of Christ and feeling the white-hot hatred of others pouring over their faces because of Christ, yet all the while rejoicing like the apostles in Acts 5:41 because they had been counted worthy to be shamed for the name.
That’s just too complex of a set of emotions for children and immature Christians. Children don’t have the experience of tasting imminent danger with all the trembling that goes with it while knowing, in the same moment, a peace that passes all understanding down in the soul. That’s too complex for a child or an immature Christian.
Children and immature Christians don’t have sufficient experience to make any sense existentially out of Psalm 2:11: “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” That just doesn’t make sense to the heart that hasn’t gotten to know the depth of what it means to fear the Lord — the very Lord who cares for us and loves us, and yet whom we would be terrified to have as our enemy.
Children and immature Christians don’t have sufficient experience to make sense out of Paul’s phrase “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
In other words, the immature heart thinks that sorrow and joy are alternatives. The immature think that joy and sorrow are sequential in life: sometimes we’re sorrowful while at other times we’re joyful. But they don’t have categories for simultaneous sorrow and joy.
Only the battle-scarred, broken-hearted, contrite, seasoned followers of Jesus know deep down in the fiber of their being that in this life they will never only rejoice and never only sorrow. They will always be intermingled.
Children and immature Christians don’t have sufficient experience to understand why Paul would say in Philippians 2:12 that precisely because God is at work in us, willing and doing his good pleasure, we should fear and tremble — we should do our obedience with fear and trembling. Wouldn’t the presence of God working in us take away fear and trembling? No, not all of it, but it takes a good bit of serious living with Jesus to discover these things.
Glib Versus Joy
Now I say all of that because the question as posed cannot be answered. Should the Lord’s Supper be solemn or cheerful? I’m saying it should not be either-or and should not be sequentially. There is a solemnity with explosive joy, and there is sweet cheerfulness whose eyes are brimming with tears.
“Complex emotional categories are necessary to create an atmosphere reflecting the realities of the Lord’s Supper.”
The Lord’s Supper is a commemoration and an emblematic demonstration of the most painful, the most sinful, the most sorrowful act in the history of the world. And it is aiming to produce in us a kind of joy in the gospel and in Christ that is greater than any joy in the world, but that joy is not chipper, it’s not glib, it’s not superficial, it’s not silly, it’s not bouncy.
The only people I expect to understand what I’m saying here are mature, seasoned, battle-scarred veterans of some or much trial and suffering in which they have found Jesus to be all sufficient and gloriously satisfying. But even though that’s the only person I expect to get what I’m saying, I might be able to give a hint that would help people.
Sorrow and Joy
Several years ago, one of the young men of our church died suddenly with no apparent explanation. He was in his twenties, and he was a strong believer. In fact, he had died in the midst of a beautiful ministry. His parents and family were grieving, but not as those who had no hope. We were all keenly aware that our brother was indescribably happy with Jesus while we were pouring out our sorrows.
When we gathered for the funeral, the church was packed. It had been arranged by the parents that we would be singing as a congregation as the family and the body entered — singing a mighty song, a big strong, a triumphant song of victory over death and celebration of life.
“The immature heart thinks that sorrow and joy are alternatives.”
Even as I recall it now, really even as I recall it now, several years later, shivers are going down the backs of my arms because as I told his father later, that moment was one of the greatest moments of my life — great with joy, great with sorrow.
When I looked down from the platform and saw this father with his hands in the air, I could scarcely contain the power of what I felt. I don’t know what to call it except exquisitely joyful sorrow and exquisitely sorrowful joy.
That’s my answer. The Lord’s Supper is in a class by itself in combining emotions that only the veterans of sorrow and joy understand well enough to plan the service appropriately. That’s my prayer, and that’s my goal — that such people would plan the service.