Bible Study for March 25 for Worship April 14

X HOW GOD CHANGES YOUR BRAINActs 9:1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.
4 And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting;
6 but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
8 Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”
11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying,
12 and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem;
14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.”
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;
16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized,
19 and took food and was strengthened. For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
20 And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

COMMENTARY

We have two immensely important stories in our scripture today: the Story of the Transformation of Saul to Paul, and the Story of Ananias. The Conversion of Paul has been a classic of Christian Faith. Most of us have not had a dramatic and blinding spiritual experience. But our recent study of Near Death Experiences and how God can change our brains should give us a perspective on Saul’s sudden and dramatic conversion experience. The brain can be flooded with chemicals as a result of illness, fasting, seizure, near death, concussion, injury, and sometimes just spontaneously, perhaps divine intervention. This flood of chemicals can permanently rewire our brains. Paul appears to have had such an experience. Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts contain tantalizing hints as to the source of his conversion experience. His “thorn in the flesh,” may have included seizures, or migraines. He may have been disciplining himself with severe spiritual exercises including prayer vigils and fasting. From a distance of 2,000 years we cannot be sure what brought on his stunning experience, including temporary blindness on the Road to Damascus. We can only say for sure his life was changed forever.

Even if we have not experienced such a sudden and dramatic event as Paul, the spiritual practices of faith over time can rewire our brains. And so I would direct our attention to a quotation from the book How God Changes Our Brains.

As a neuroscientist, the more I delve into the nature of the human brain, the more I realize how mysterious we are. . .
. . . I’ve learned that behind our drive to survive, there is another force, and the best word to describe it is faith. Faith not just in God, or in science or love, but faith in ourselves and each other. Having faith in the human spirit is what drives us to survive and transcend. It makes life worth living, and it gives meaning to our life. Without such hope and optimism – synonyms for what I am calling faith – the mind can easily slip into depression or despair. Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes, and it is one of the most important principles to honor in our lives.
Some people put their faith in God, while others put it into science, relationships, or work. But wherever you choose to place your faith you must still confront a deeper question: What is your ultimate pursuit and dream? What do you truly desire in your life – not only for yourself, but for the world as well? And how will you begin to make that desire a reality?

Paul was changed forever and we can be transformed as well if we are willing to honor the faith that is embedded in our neurons and genes. Like any latent ability, the gift has to be developed through spiritual practices. We are admonished to prayer regularly and seek the community of faith around the Sharing Table of Jesus.

The story of Ananias is as important as the story of Paul. Paul had been struck blind by his spiritual confrontation with the Risen Christ. Just in case he didn’t get the message, spending three days unable to see brought him to his senses. He was in need of healing. He was in need of the healing power of Christ, and just to reinforce that message God needed a follower of Jesus to bring that healing to Paul. So God called on Ananias.

Note that Ananias was praying when God called. I suppose God can get through to us, even when we are not praying, but spiritual practices open us to the presence of God. God called Ananias by name. Ananias responded with the prophetic “Here I am Lord.” So God told Ananias what to do. But there was a problem. Ananias was afraid. And this story is a good illustration of “just because we are afraid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get us.” Saul was coming to Damascus with warrants for the arrest of any “followers of the way,” he might find there. He was authorized to bind them and bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before the Temple Court. There is considerable scholarly controversy about Paul’s mission to Damascus. It seems hardly likely that the Temple authorities could commission someone to go into a different Roman Province and kidnap people to bring them to Jerusalem for persecution. It also seems hardly likely that the Temple authorities would have been send abroad for followers of Jesus to persecute, while there was a church in Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul was going to Damascus to organize local Jews in Damascus to terrorize potential followers of Jesus. And Paul may have organized such a mission on his own without the authorization of the Temple authorities. After all Paul and his thugs had broken Stephen out of jail and stoned him to death without the authorization of the Sanhedrin. Again from a distance of 2,000 years we cannot determine exactly what was going on.

For the purpose of our story we just need to know that Ananias had good reason to be afraid. And so we are confronted by the question once again, what would we do, if we were not afraid? What Ananias does is incredible. He loves. He goes to Paul, and he calls him “brother.” Through faith he overcomes his fear and anger toward this person and loves him. As a result of the love Ananias extends to Paul, the very healing power of God was able to restore Paul’s eye sight. Love wins!

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. How did Saul gain authorization to go to Damascus on a mission?

2. What was the nature of the commission given to Saul in the text?

3. What were the elements of the vision Saul experienced on the Road to Damascus?

4. What was Saul’s response to the vision?

5. What did Saul’s traveling companions experience?

6. What was the aftermath of the vision?

7. According to the text how did God select Ananias to go to Saul?

8. How did Ananias know where to find Saul?

9. What was God asking of Ananias?

10. What was Ananias’ objection to God’s request?

11. How did Ananias heal Saul?

12. How did Saul’s behavior change as the result of his experience?

Week of April 8 – April 14: Third Sunday of Eastertide – Acts 9:1-6, 7-20 – The Way Forward – Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19.

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