Centuries before John composed his gospel, the Greek philosopher Plato became well-known because of his unique explanation of our human condition. In his view of the world, we're slaves chained together facing the rear wall of a cave, unable to turn around and look at what's going on at the entrance behind us. All we know of reality are the shadows of objects which pass by the mouth of the cave, projected on the wall One of the goals of Plato's philosophy is to help us break our chains, turn around and experience things as they really are, to discover the "true" in life.
Many experts on John are convinced that he's referring to Plato's belief in those passages of his gospel in which he calls something or someone "true." He believes that only our experience of the risen Jesus helps us break our chains and lets us see the real instead of the shadow. If these scholars are correct, today's liturgical pericope is one of the best known instances of John employing that Platonic concept.
"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood," Jesus warns, "you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that one on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh remain in me and I in them."
Some of us were brought up to believe this passage simply promises that the more communions we receive, the better chance we have of getting into heaven. That doesn't appear to be what John's Jesus is saying. First, he doesn't promise that one day we'll have eternal life; he teaches that we already possess it. We're not going to receive something new "on the last day." We'll just be raised into a different dimension of the true life Jesus gave us on the day we began to believe and imitate him. Second, for John the actual reception is less important than our frame of mind when we receive.
Each Christian biblical author contends that belief in Jesus means we commit ourselves to dying and rising with him by giving ourselves to others. John has Jesus express that reality in a disturbingly direct way during the Last Supper: "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (15-12-13)
Those who break their chains, turn around and begin to live in the true world in which Jesus lives will eat the food and drink the cup that people who have moved out of the cave must eat and drink in order to maintain their new, eternal, true life. Our oneness with Jesus implies that we live completely different from the way those who are still chained live.
That's why Paul expects his Ephesian Christians to stand out from others in their community. ". . . Be filled with the Spirit," he writes, "addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . . giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father." Such unique behavior demonstrates that they're no longer facing the wall.
No wonder Jewish members of the early church found something in our Proverbs passage which many of their fellow Jews never noticed. "Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding." These first converts to the faith of Jesus were convinced that they had stepped across the line which separated the true from the shadow. They had discovered real wisdom.
The problem Jesus faced is still the problem we face today. How do you get people to "turn around," to die and rise enough to experience the reality of God working in their lives?