On 25th January 2015, the third Sunday of Epiphany, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 67, Acts 9:1-22, and Matthew 19:27-30.
Can leopards change their spots? Can people change their character? Most of us would be very doubtful but the conversion of St Paul was dramatic and long lasting. If God can change someone like Paul who was dedicated to serving God by eliminating Christians, but became one of the most influential Christians of all time, he can surely change others.
One of the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling concerns how the Leopard got his spots. According to that story Leopard and his friend the Ethiopian both lived on the High Veldt, which was sandy coloured. Both the Leopard and the Ethiopian were a similar colour to their surroundings, which meant it was very hard for prey animals such as Giraffe and Zebra to see the Leopard and the Ethiopian as they waited to capture them.
Eventually the prey animals left the High Veldt and chose to live in the forest instead. They grew stripes and patches on their coats which helped to camouflage them. Once the prey animals had moved, the Leopard and the Ethiopian became hungry because they had nothing to catch. They visited Baviaan, the wise baboon, and asked for advice. He told them that the prey animals had ‘gone into other spots’. He suggested that the Leopard and the Ethiopian should do the same.
The Leopard and the Ethiopian set off to search for the prey animals. When they got to the forest they could smell Zebra and Giraffe but they couldn’t see them anywhere. They waited until it was dark and managed to catch Zebra and Giraffe using scent and sound. The Leopard and the Ethiopian were very surprised to see how different Zebra and Giraffe looked. They asked them why they had changed, and they were shown how easy it was to hide in the forest if you had striped and patchy coats.
The Leopard and the Ethiopian decided to do the same thing. The Ethiopian turned his skin black. He then placed his bunched together black fingertips on Leopard’s sandy coloured coat, giving him spots. Both of them could now hide very well in the forest. They didn’t want to change their colouring again.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that we have a saying that ‘A leopard doesn’t change his spots’. Perhaps if he did, he wouldn’t be able to catch his dinner! Of course what we really mean by the saying is that people don’t change. The saying seems to be used mostly about people who have unpleasant characteristics which we wish they would change.
Today we are remembering St Paul’s conversion. If ever a leopard changed his spots, Paul did. In fact his change was so great that at the beginning of his story he has his Jewish name, Saul, and after his conversion he was known by his Roman name, Paul.
Saul was as Jewish as it was possible to get and proud of it. Everything that should be done for or by a Jewish male had happened to him: he’d been circumcised, he’d learnt the Law from the Jewish scriptures and followed it to the letter. He was obviously a very intelligent young man and was able to be trained by Gamaliel, one of the best rabbis, so that he could become a rabbi himself.
Knowing so much about the Jewish faith and caring so much to follow it correctly, it’s not hard to imagine why Saul was very concerned about a new sect which had arisen in Judaism, called The Way. From Saul’s point of view the followers of Jesus needed to be totally eradicated. They had got the Jewish faith completely wrong. It seems that Saul considered it his own personal responsibility to get rid of The Way as soon as possible. His devotion to the Jewish faith was near enough murderous in its intent to destroy anything that threatened it. Like many violent people nowadays, whom we hear of all too often in the news, Saul was prepared to do violence in the name of God.
Saul approved of the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, but the death of one Christian was not enough. A little earlier in Acts than today’s passage, we can read of how Saul went from house to house seeking for Christians and having them thrown in prison. He was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ as it says at the beginning of today’s reading. It seems that dealing with Jerusalem was not enough either. Saul got permission from the high priest to do the same in Damascus where Christians were also growing in number. With single-minded zeal Saul set out on the journey of a lifetime.
Perhaps Saul had not heard his teacher Gamaliel advising the Sanhedrin not to kill the apostles as, if their teaching was not from God, it would die out and if it was from God the Sanhedrin would find themselves fighting God. Saul soon found out that his murderous campaign was indeed a case of fighting against the God he so much wanted to serve.
I think most of us are familiar with the wonderful story of how Jesus stopped Saul in his tracks on the road to Damascus and challenged him over his persecution of Christians. Jesus had said in his lifetime that whatever you do to his followers, you do to him, and here he confirms that. The persecution was against Christians but Jesus identified himself as ‘the one whom you are persecuting’.
As a result of this encounter with Jesus, Saul had a lot of thinking to do. Imagine having to rethink something he had been so sure about. Imagine the cost to Saul: his loss of face, his loss of a blameless life, his loss of purpose, his loss of the faith which he had so dedicated his life to. Yet somehow God gave Paul the grace to be transformed completely, much to the consternation of poor Ananias who ended up baptising the one he probably expected was going to arrest him!
The story of Paul’s conversion can give us hope for the conversion of anyone, however stubbornly resistant they seem to be to faith. We can see that it was God who was at work to bring about the change in Paul’s life. God had a plan for Paul’s life and it was he who decided how to reach him. God loves and cares for all his children just as much as he cared for Paul.
I’m not sure I believe Rudyard Kipling’s story about the Leopard and his spots, though it’s a nice story. I suspect God created the leopard to have spots and didn’t need the help of an Ethiopian. Of course, we know that he who created the spotty leopard, the stripy zebra and the patchy giraffe is equally capable of helping a leopard to change its spots. Even a leopard as stubborn as Paul or the people you have been praying for, that they might meet Jesus. Leopards really can change their spots with God’s help.