Spirituality for Today – September 2011 – Volume 16, Issue 2

A Lesson In Moving On: A leopard Can Change His Spots

By Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

A photo of a Leopard

"Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic."
"Once a liar, always a liar."

Well, according to the wisdom of this world, that's right. Perhaps you heard this counsel from your parents or grandparents, or from a judge, or from a friend. They mean well, trying to warn you that flawed patterns of behavior come from flawed patterns of character. And we all know that inner character does not easily change, if at all. One might mask that hidden character flaw with an ambush of repentance, or obscure that inner flaw with a temporary resolve to change. But the worldly wisdom warns you to mark people's failures well, for they inevitably return to the surface again and again.

"If you are seeking a long-lasting relationship you can trust, steer clear of failed character," says this well-known axiom.

But God disagrees.

The failing of this axiom about "the permanence of failure" is not so much that it is not true at all, but that it is not true always. And it dismisses the great hope and the great possibilities of God's redemptive graces in our lives.

According to God, none of us is fixed in place, irreparably fastened to our failures and flaws.

It may be true that most of the time we behave in ways consistent with our most persistent mistakes, but it is not true that pattern cannot be broken. Perhaps it is even true that the power to change deep-seated character flaws lies beyond our ability to change. But it is not beyond God's ability. For god's power to forgive, and to transform us from sinner to saint, is simply greater than our ability to fail.

This is the story of grace, and the power of the goodness of God, that is the hope for every one of us.

In some ways, for all of us who trust our eternity to the redemptive power of God, this is our story. And it was the story of the Apostle Paul, from the Acts of the Apostles.

Instead of the old axiom that "the leopard cannot change its pots," let's try on a new axiom: "Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future."

What do you think about when I mention the name of the Apostle Paul?

If you recall your early days of Bible stories, you probably think of the great apostle who was the brilliant mind, recasting the story of the Hebrew Messiah in a manner intelligible to the Roman world.

He was the great traveling missionary, whose journeys took him more than 8,000 miles, across two continents, across oceans, to establish churches.

He was the courageous witness for Christ, enduring the threats of enemies, the maladies of illness, the onslaught of shipwreck, the torture of imprisonment. He appears before kings and Caesar, and preached to the intelligentsia as well as the common man of his day. His letters comprise almost half of the New Testament, and his thoughts and theology form the basis of the Church to this very day.

Finally, the Apostle Paul was martyred for his faith outside the gates of Rome, but not before he had helped establish the Christian faith all across the Roman Empire. After Jesus, no single figure casts a longer shadow across the history of the Church than this one life. What a saint was Paul!

But, like all saints, Paul had a past that was not so saintly.

Sometimes that past is not so well known. Maybe it is only known to the person and to God. But every saint has a past, a past that apart from the power of God would have cancelled the entire sainted life we remember and honor.

Paul had such a past, but we know of it because he used his checkered past as a testament to the power of God that is possible in every person's life.

Paul once said that in his former life, before Christ, he "was the chief of all sinners." He wasn't exaggerating. Pal had been a Pharisee, so zealous to protect his native religion and his place of prominence within it, that he aspired to become the chief persecutor of the new deviant sect called Christianity.

Paul developed arguments against Christianity, denying its claims, embarrassing its claimants. This Paul took his zeal to another level, and he became the chief person in charge of pursuing and persecuting members of the Church, dragging men and women and children to prison, and overseeing their punishment, even to the death.

Paul the great apostle was first Paul the ambitious, Paul the bigoted, Paul the proud, Paul the persecutor, Paul the murderer. What a sinner was Paul!

So it is true, no one can boast of his or her spiritual resume before God, for even the most godly life has a past and set of secrets that only God could forgive. But equally true, no one can say that any amount of sins automatically disqualified a person from the possibility of change, of transformation by the love of God.

If it could happen to a man like Paul, he argued, it could happen to anybody. And he is right. Sure, every saint has a past. But every sinner has a future, too. It is possible by God's grace and power to change into the person God always knew we could be. As long as we are living, it is never too late.

Everyone else may give up on us after our repeated failures and disappointments, and we may even give up on ourselves, but God never ever gives up. And often the first step, the most crucial step to this amazing transformation from sinner to saint, is to have just one person who will dare to name the truth about us, the hope before us, in Christ. For Paul, that one person was Barnabas.

When Paul was converted to Christianity, no one believed him, or trusted him. People in the church feared it was a trick to gain entrance to the fellowship for the purpose of arresting even more of them and hauling them to prison. And they had a good reason for their concern.

"Once a sinner, always a sinner. Once a liar, always a liar. Once a murderer, always a murderer."

But Barnabas didn't think so. With great courage and personal risk, Barnabas staked his safety and reputation on the power and possibility of God in Paul's life. And across the slender bridge of that one person's trust and hope, Paul walked into the history of the Church as a saint.

Often it takes just one person to believe in you, to speak the hope that calls you forward past your failures, and to risk standing by you when other pull back.

We might never have heard about Paul if it was not for Barnabas. He was the one person in Paul's life who believed the leopard could change its spots, and a sinner could become a saint.

What about you?
Who has been your Barnabas?
Who believed in you when no one else did?
Who gave you a chance?
Who took a risk on you?

Thank him or her this week. Better yet, let's all become that Barnabas for at least one potential Paul. It is the only real way to say "thanks" anyway.

Barnabas, are you there? Paul is locked out, waiting.

Every sinner has a future.