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Flame, Francis Chan, and the Christian Longing for Communion

March 3, 2020


Something fascinating is happening with Christians today. It could be nothing more than a small and scattered change bound to fade away; but it could also be we are seeing the tremors of an exciting tectonic shift on the horizon.

More and more, Christians seem to be turning to communion as a sacramental, and indeed central, aspect of Christian life.

A recent example is Flame, a Grammy-nominated evangelical rapper in the Reformed Baptist tradition. Flame surprised fans this year he announced that he was becoming a Lutheran—and released a new theologically rich EP, Extra Nos, exploring the change.

To non-Christians—and probably to many Catholics—a shift from one Protestant denomination to another probably seems to be of little consequence. But Extra Nos reveals a significant intellectual and spiritual evolution of a man who, by any measure, was firmly entrenched in the evangelical world. As he explains on the track “Good Works,” the shift was from a subjective, inward-looking theology, to an objective, outward-looking one (extra nos is Latin for “outside of us”). He explains in “Concordia” (a nod to the Lutheran seminary that precipitated the change) that this includes an embrace of the “sacramental context and application of God’s grace.” And at the beginning of “I Used to Think,” Flame presents his new Lutheran understanding of the bread and wine of communion:

I used to think like that
That bread and wine were elements that represent
I do not think like that
“This is my body and blood”
He said what he meant

The transformation will no doubt be jarring for many of his evangelical fans. But he’s not the only one throwing evangelicals for a loop. The popular preacher Francis Chan recently caused a stir when he talked about the importance of communion and the ancient belief in the Real Presence:

I didn’t know that for the first fifteen hundred years of church history, everyone saw [Communion] as the literal Body and Blood of Christ, and it wasn’t until five hundred years ago that someone popularized a thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more . . . For fifteen hundred years it was never one guy and his pulpit being the center of the church; it was the Body and Blood of Christ.

Other voices are echoing them. Rev. Glenn Packiam, the pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado, told America magazine that he had become concerned about the way evangelical worship was centered on an individual preacher. “I realized that something was missing in our worship; and that something was Eucharist, was sacramentality.” And in a piece for Christianity Today titled “Whatever Happened to Communion & Baptism? (Or, why aren’t we doing what Jesus told us to?”, editor in chief Mark Galli laments the “profoundly low state” occupied by these sacraments in evangelical churches, and argues that evangelicalism is out of step with “the clear commands of its Lord.”

But there’s something else fascinating at work in all of this: the longing for sacramental communion seems to be accompanied by a longing for Christian communion.

In “I Used to Think,” Flame’s expanded view of the bread and wine is immediately preceded by an expanded view of other Christian traditions—not only Lutherans, but the Orthodox, Catholic, and Coptic churches. And when he made his controversial comments about the Real Presence, Chan drew an explicit and immediate connection with Christian unity: “I say that because the Church is more divided than any time in history. What does [the Bible] tell us clearly? That he does not want any divisions in his Church.”

Could it be that Christians are not only longing for a return to the Eucharist, but sensing that this gift is somehow intrinsically connected to Christian unity? That Christ mysteriously gave us his Body in the Eucharist because it was the very thing—the only thing—that could keep the Body of the Church from breaking apart?

The connection is arguably laid out in the Gospel of John. In the seventeenth chapter—immediately following the Last Supper—Christ delivers his “high priestly prayer” to the Father, saying:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . . (John 17:20-22)

We also find same connection in the Church Fathers. John Chrysostom writes:

“For we, who are many, are one bread, one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). “For why speak I of communion?’ says he, “we are that self-same body.” For what is the bread? The Body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The Body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made on . . . so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ.

Of course, history is complicated, and unity isn’t quite so simple; even Catholics and those Protestants who reject the symbolic view of communion continue to have significant disagreements. (And a false “intercommunion” that would simply sweep those differences under the rug would do little to help.) But just as we see more and more Christians turning toward the sacraments, we also see more and more sacramental Christians having fruitful dialogues. To offer just one recent example, Reformed pastor Paul VanderKlay recently hosted Catholic theologian Brett Salkeld for a wonderful discussion on why there is more common ground when it comes to transubstantiation than we all suppose.

The compelling connections between faith and communion, communion and Real Presence, and Real Presence and the unity of the Church stubbornly continue to present themselves. And for Catholics, the Mass continues to be where the reality of those connections, and the hope of their fulfillment, are made most manifest.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church of course emphasizes the first connection: “The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’” (CCC 1324). It also emphasizes the second: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained’” (CCC 1374).

But it also clearly lays out the connection between the Body of Christ that is the Eucharist, and the Body of Christ that is the Church. “The Eucharist makes the Church (CCC 1396), and the Church unites herself with the sacrifice re-presented in the Eucharist (CCC 1368). This results in a mysterious secondary meaning in the climactic moment of the Mass. As Fulton Sheen writes in The Mystical Body:

The Vine sacrificed himself on the Cross; the Vine and the Branches now sacrifice themselves in the Mass. The primary meaning of the words of consecration then refer to the Vine: This is the Body and this is the Blood of Christ renewing the Sacrifice of Calvary. But the secondary meaning refers to the Branches united to the Vine to form the Mystical Body. . . . Each one of us who are members of the Church say, “This is my Body. This is my Blood. . . . Take all that I am.”

This coinherence of God and his people in the Eucharist is also inherently an engine of unity. “The Eucharist,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “is the sacrament of the Church’s unity.” The Catechism elaborates: “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being” (CCC 1325).

This unity also despises disunity—and ultimately, following Christ’s prayer, longs for the oneness of all Christians:

The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return. (CCC 1398)

Protestants are longing for communion, and they are longing for unity.

Catholics need to meet them in these longings. And not only long for them too, but pray for them, and also sacrifice for them—sacrifice our pride, our time, our mental space, our energy—because true communion requires sacrifice.

What better place to pray than the Mass?

What better time to sacrifice than now?

“Take, eat . . .”