If God were completely “other,” we could not relate to God because God would be different from us in every way. But Genesis assures us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. So even in the matter of holiness there can be some similarity, but God’s holiness is so far beyond ours that the encounter of a human being with the living God is powerful and transformative. When the prophet Isaiah envisions God’s throne, he hears and sees the seraphs singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah’s initial response to God’s holiness is to cry, “Woe is me; I am doomed!” God’s holiness, in the form of a burning coal, is placed upon Isaiah’s lips; and he is not only purified, but prepared for his call, as his “wickedness is removed” and his “sin purged.”
The confrontation with God’s holiness has transformed Isaiah; he is now the man who responds to God’s call not with shame or fear, but by saying, “Here I am. Send me!”
That same transformative power was operative in Jesus. The Gospel of Luke presents Jesus’ call of the first disciples, Simon Peter, James and John, differently than Mark or Matthew. In the other synoptic Gospels, there is a simple call and response. In Luke, the call and response are placed in the context of the manifestation of Jesus’ power. Luke subtly answers a question that the other two synoptic Gospels raise in our minds: Why did the disciples respond to Jesus’ call so quickly?
Jesus comes among the fisherman not in some “holy” or otherworldly setting, but in their day-to-day work lives—at the shore while they are cleaning their nets. After Simon, James and John had a night of unfruitful fishing, Jesus instructs Simon to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon counters by telling Jesus that their hard work has not been rewarded all night, “but at your command I will lower the nets.” This act of faith is rewarded with overflowing nets and boats sinking under the weight of the catch. Simon knows that it is Jesus who has brought them this catch and recognizes in him the awful power of God. As with the prophet Isaiah, the presence of the divine overwhelms Simon and illuminates his weakness and sinfulness. His cry, so similar to Isaiah, is “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Yet the presence of God in our lives not only illuminates our weakness, but strengthens and emboldens us as it transforms us. Jesus simply instructs Simon not to be afraid. Simon and the others clearly hear the call, for they “left everything and followed him.” It is that same powerful presence of Jesus Christ which was revealed to Paul and transformed him from persecutor to evangelist. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul speaks of the reality of Jesus Christ and encapsulates it in what is perhaps the earliest Christian creed: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.”
This proto-creed is not intended to be a dry summation of realities long gone and fondly remembered, but a sign of God’s power and reality still active. For the same God who came to Isaiah, Simon Peter and Paul is still calling us in the church and beyond to encounter the living God, to be purified by his cleansing power, to cast off fear and to respond to the call to be transformed by God’s grace. And it is still the case that God’s call comes to us and meets us where we are in the world, whether called like Isaiah to encounter God in his glory or like Peter to meet God as he performed his daily tasks. The message in every case is clear: Do not be afraid to encounter God’s holiness—it will burn off our fear and reveal the holiness for which God has created us.
God’s “otherness” is not intended to drive us away from him but to draw us near to him. It is when we respond to God’s call that we can call out to God confidently with the Psalmist: “When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.”