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Fifth Sunday of the Year

Called to Holiness

We often pigeon-hole people. We are certain we know them and we fix their identity. We treat them more like things than people. Then suddenly we see in them a new dimension, a surprising depth, a different person.

And if we do this to people we do it even more to God. We may treat him as an impersonal deity, an abstract entity, something that can be manipulated by our religious formulas. But the God of the Bible whom we worship is a personal God who cannot be pinned down or easily defined. God is other, mysterious, different - that is what makes him holy. But where do we encounter this holy God?

Isaiah tells us that he encountered this holy God in the temple, he saw him through the smoke of incense in the midst of the liturgy. He had a vision of the all-holy God seated upon his heavenly throne and surrounded by the worshipping seraphs. And this is how many people see the holiness of God: in a sacred place, served by priests, and cut off from the outside world. And many want to keep it that way. Holiness should be kept safe in its own sacred world and not be allowed to interfere with the secular.

But when we come to Luke's Gospel today, the Holy One of God has come out of church and is there in the workplace. Jesus is teaching from a fisherman's boat and then commanding Simon to put out into the deep and to begin fishing again. In fact we encounter the holy God when he comes to where we are actually living our lives - to the priestly Isaiah, it is in the temple and to Simon the fisherman, it is among his nets.

But notice in both cases the ordinary, familiar world is broken open. The sacred boundaries cannot confine the transcendent presence of the holy God in the temple ritual for as the angelic hosts assert 'His glory fills the whole earth'. Isaiah is seized by this new fascinating presence he had not expected to encounter.

And Simon no doubt had paid his regular visits to the Temple in Jerusalem and had been awestruck by the sacred atmosphere there. Now he was back in a world where he was in control. He knew at least when it was a good time to catch fish. But he had been fascinated by the words of this teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, as he preached to the crowds from Simon's own boat. And, like Mary before him, he consented to what seemed the impossible. He obeyed the word to put out into the deep and fish when his own senses told him to expect nothing. The huge catch of fish, almost bursting the nets, which followed was for him a sign of the presence of the holy God in Jesus. 'Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man'

But the call of the holy God does not conform to what we expect. The sinner is not banished, just purged for action. Unworthiness cannot be used as an excuse to keep to safe old ways. Isaiah is not allowed to stay in the temple and Peter cannot remain on the shore. They are both sent out into the sinful world. God calls us not to just savour his holiness in the safety of the familiar but he sends us out into the deep, into the unknown, to make his glory manifest to a hostile world. Isaiah is sent to preach justice to an unrepentant Israel and Simon is sent to preach the Gospel to a society where many felt lost and set apart from the holiness of God.

God calls the prophets and apostles in dramatic ways but he also calls each of one of us. He breaks open our familiar defences and transcends our limited expectations. We cannot plead our sinfulness as an excuse not to obey his word. He invites us to put out into the deep wherever we are. And he goes on calling us even when we think we are safe. Only by responding to his call and encountering his holy presence we will finally discover the true identity for which he created us. 

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