There is a saying about leopards – I guess you know the one I mean … “Leopards never change their spots”. We use it to talk about someone who has been in prison, or someone who we have caught lying, or someone who has offended us. We can’t believe it when they seem to have changed. And we are convinced that their motives must be odd or that eventually their true base character will show through.
There are other similar phrases:
“Truth will out:” I guess this means that the truth will become known eventually, you can’t hide who you really are for ever. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – Launcelot says:
“it is a wise father that knows his own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son: give me your blessing: truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.”
The hidden things we have done and the parts of who we are that we want to hide will always eventually come to the surface and become known.
“Once a thief, always a thief:” … or Once a cheat, always a cheat. These suggest that once you have learned to behave in a particular way you will always revert to type!
I have heard the same formula used in a different way. … “Once a priest, always a priest,” and: “Once a bishop, always a bishop.” … I’ll leave you to decide whether those are positive or negative! … However, what they share is a conviction that a person who’s done a certain kind of job will always have the characteristics of people who do that job, even after he or she no longer does that kind of work.
Is this right? Are we defined by our past?
Hans Christian Anderson tells a very familiar story whose main point is that ugly ducklings can become beautiful swans. We know that ugly caterpillars can become amazing butterflies, tadpoles do become frogs and toads. Things do change.
In our Gospel reading today we hear the story of people being called by Jesus. He chooses them to follow him. James and John, Andrew and Simon Peter.
They encounter Jesus and in so doing are changed for ever.
We don’t know that much about Jesus disciples. We do know quite a bit about Peter. We know that, like James, John and Andrew, he was a fisherman. But we know more than that. What was Peter like?
… Hot-tempered, always making mistakes, a rough diamond, not someone to suffer fools gladly, someone who lived a hard life, a no-nonsense kind of guy. … Perhaps a typical country fisherman.
And then Peter meets Jesus. Something in this person, Jesus, changes Peter for ever. It doesn’t all happen in an instant, but it starts to happen as Peter listens to Jesus speak and when he sees Jesus’ miracles. He is changed as he follows Jesus.
“Peter, I have a job for you, follow me,” Jesus says. Peter I can see the potential in you, I can see who you will become. Peter I want you to be my fisherman now – only you’ll be catching not fish but men and women to be my followers.
And we know how the story ends – this ugly ducking of a man becomes a Swan – he becomes one of Jesus most faithful followers and eventual becomes the leader of the church.
In our Gospel, Jesus does not just call Peter – he calls Andrew, James and John to be his followers. And in just the same way he calls each of us to follow him. Rough diamonds that we are, self-deprecating or over confident, angry or depressed, rude and negative, fearful or fearless, strong or weak, trapped in difficult relationships. All of us called to be his followers, his ambassadors.
And you know, just like Peter, there is potential for change in each of us. Jesus can take me, he can take you, and he can transform us. We no longer need to feel that we are no good – just like Peter we can admit to God our weakness and our failings and then God takes us as we are and makes something special.
Please forgive all the mixed metaphors. … We no longer need to feel like the Ugly Ducking, for God in Jesus sees the Swan that we really are – and as we give ourselves to God – he draws out all the good that is in us. It really is a case for us that a leopard’s spots can change!