Sunday’s readings include two classic "call narratives," and Paul’s well-known reflection on his own call.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Scripture’s original readers (and listeners) shared the conviction that each had been called by God. One of the reasons they so faithfully perused these sacred writings was to better understand the implications of that call. That’s why every call narrative is so important. It stands out as a beacon illuminating the surrounding passage, taking us to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of God.

Sunday’s readings zero in on the unworthiness of the person called.

Scholars presume that Isaiah uses lots of symbolism in de-scribing his call (Is 6: 1-8). They have no idea how or where this prophet actually realized Yah-weh had set him apart for a special ministry. Only toward the end of that ministry did he compose the narrative which comprises the first reading.

Unworthy

The key to understanding Isaiah’s initial response is in the Seraphim’s cry, "Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts!" "Holy" in Hebrew simply means "other." Our sacred authors believed that Yahweh is distinct from human beings because Yahweh is other from human beings. Yahweh is holy; we’re not.

Coming face to face with God’s uniqueness forces Isaiah to recognize his unholiness. "Woe is me," he cries, "I am doomed. For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts!"

Notice how Isaiah’s statement parallels Peter’s statement in the Gospel (Lk 5: 1-11). The amazed fisherman had just assured a Galilean carpenter that it was useless to go back into deep water and lower their nets for a catch. "We’ve worked all night," he tells Jesus, "and caught nothing." But as a favor, he ignores his expert evaluation of the situation and lowers the nets.

The ensuing miraculous catch of fish squeezes Peter into the same corner as Isaiah. "Depart from me, Lord," he tells Jesus, "for I am a sinful man."

In both instances, the "holy one" not only steps in to assure the "unholy one" that everything will be okay, but also gives the unclean, sinful person a special mission.

Isaiah remembers, "One of the Seraphim flew to me holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar." Once the ember touches Isaiah’s lips and purges him of his unworthiness, Yahweh offers him a deal he can’t refuse: "Whom shall I send?" Who will go for us?" "Here I am," the now holy Isaiah replies, "send me!"

Jesus tells Peter something similar: "Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people." Instead of a burning ember, Jesus offers forgiveness.

Abnormal

Steeped in knowledge of prophetic calls and knowing how and when God had reached out to him, Paul ends his famous list of those who saw the risen Jesus with the comment, "Last of all as to one born abnormally, He appeared to me" ( I Cor 15: 1-11). The phrase, "born abnormally," refers to a baby born when no one is expecting its birth.

Paul tells us why he uses that analogy: "For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But, by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace has not been ineffective."

No one can refuse a call because of his or her unworthiness. God isn’t limited by the restrictions we place on ourselves. Paul discovered that even in the midst of doing the opposite of what God wants us to do, God still can make us holy enough to carry out our God-given ministry.

Perhaps we so rarely give ourselves over to God because we so rarely understand how God’s otherness empowers us to be other.

(2/5/04)