Two boys collected a bucket of nuts underneath a great tree inside a cemetery on the outskirts of town. When the bucket was full, they sat down out of sight to divide the spoils.
"One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me," said one boy, as the other watched intently. Their bucket was so full that some of the nuts had spilled out and rolled toward the fence.
It was dusk, and another boy came riding along the road on his bicycle. As he passed, he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery. He slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me."
The boy with the bike knew just what was happening, and his face went ghostly white. "Oh my," he shuddered. "It's Satan and the Lord dividing souls at the cemetery!"
He jumped back on his bike and rode off, desperately looking for a friend. Just around the bend he met an old, scowling man who hobbled along with a cane.
"Come with me, quick!" said the boy. "You won't believe what I heard! Satan and the Lord are down at the cemetery dividing up the souls!"
The man said, "Beat it, kid, can't you see it's hard for me to walk?" When the boy insisted, though, the man hobbled to the cemetery. When they arrived at the fence, they heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me."
Ready to have a little fun, the old man whispered, "Boy, you've been tellin' the truth. Let's go inside, and see if we can see the Devil himself!"
The child was horrified, but the old man was already taking his first step toward the gate. Then they heard, "Okay, that's the last of them. That's all. Now let's go get those two nuts by the fence, and we'll be done." They say the old guy made it back to town five minutes ahead of the boy! More than likely, he was looking for a friend.
Most people are constantly looking for friends. Some people are desperately looking for friendship. At times we all stand frozen with fear by the cemetery fence, so to speak, when life shakes us to the core. At times the legs don't support, and a healthy heart nearly breaks. At times we can barely muster a prayer, and when it comes out, it's a plea for a friend.
More than likely, you already know the story of Saul's conversion very well. Whenever we come to a well-known passage of scripture like we have in Acts 9, we might even know the story too well.
Today, try to picture's Paul's experience from the vantage point of loneliness. In a matter of three days, Saul became lonelier than he'd ever been. He was probably begging God for a friend.
Saul must have been physically spent when he neared Damascus. He'd traveled some 120 dusty miles to stop the church from growing there. Then, just as the city came into view, just when he was nearing a hot shower and a good meal, Saul had lost his eyesight with one blinding light. All was dark, and all remained dark. With one deafening statement from heaven, he discovered that everything he believed to be true was false. Jesus wasn't the enemy. Jesus was Lord!
In the darkness, Saul must have expected the very judgment of God. Would he even be allowed to live? In the three dark days that passed, loneliness, grief, and despair became Saul's roommates.
In the depth of Paul's loneliness, God was about to reveal the power of a faithful friend. Saul was about to meet, in fact, two of the best friends he'd ever have.
First, the Lord commanded Ananias to go to Saul. Though frightened, Ananias obeyed and became the first friend Saul found in his new family of faith.
Second, Barnabas became Saul's advocate and friend in Jerusalem. If not for Barnabas, Saul might not have even met the frightened apostles.
Saul never got over the friends he found in Ananias and Barnabas. By becoming those faithful friends, they were about to change the world. It's impossible to understate the power of a faithful friend, and it's critically important that we be that friend to people in our lives.
By looking at these irreplaceable friends, we learn five characteristics of a faithful friend.
I. Be there
Have you already been thinking about the best friends you've had? If the faces of your favorite people have already come to mind, you're remembering people who found a way to be with you. Many of them were with you in the routine of life. Maybe you attended class together. Perhaps you grew up in the same home. Maybe it's a favorite tennis partner, or the fishing buddy. If you live long enough, the best friends of your life were also those who found a way to be with you during tough times. How many stories would we have today if we told of friends who drove hundreds of miles to be with you, who jumped on an airplane to stand by your side, or those who canceled appointments to join you? The details differ, butone thing is certain about faithful friends; they don't stop with a phone call, letter, or an e-mail. They find a way to be there.
Imagine if you were in real need and you called on your best friend. He or she says, "I can't help you. They're showing a rerun of my favorite television show tonight."
You'd know the truth. That person is not a friend. A friend will be with you, even if he or she must go to great trouble or expense to do so. A faithful friend simply ignores his or her own needs in order to help a friend.
But what if God asked you to befriend an enemy? Well, he has. In half a dozen places in Scripture, Jesus said, " Love your enemies." In Luke, Jesus said, "Do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great " (Luke 6:35).
Ananias almost certainly had a family and a set of faithful friends. He lived in Damascus, kept up with the news, and knew a terrorist named Saul was on the loose.
"Ananias," said the Lord, "I have a new friend for you."
Before he fully understood, Ananias simply said, "Yes, Lord." Before he had the details of the job, before he even knew the question, Ananias gave the correct answer. There's an entire sermon in that, but for now this simple truth will do: Ananias was willing to become a friend to an enemy, despite his fear.
There is power in a personal visit. Salespeople know that; they sell far more products in person than they do over the phone, through the Internet, or by advertising. Therefore, salespeople get there.
So do faithful friends!
II. Know the power of a gentle touch
Most every culture uses touch in greeting - a handshake, a bear hug, a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on both cheeks! A touch can show sympathy, friendship, trust - sometimes powerful trust.
What a great gift Ananias gave when he came to see Saul for the first time. Luke records it in Acts 9:17: "Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul . . ."
Saul had come to Damascus to literally bind the hands of Ananias. Instead, Ananias used those very hands to gently touch Saul. They had both originally anticipated a struggle, a fist-fight, even a battle to the death. Instead, a kind touch is extended from the hunted to the hunter.
Imagine how Saul might have felt before Ananias arrived. He'd had no food or drink for three days, and he likely hadn't had much human touch. The men he came with would have been frightened at what happened on the road, and they could get no explanation from Saul. After three days, they'd become frustrated. Why, if Saul wanted to sit in the darkness and die of starvation, they couldn't stop him! He was blind, frightened, and depressed. How simple a solution for Paul's problem. He needed a friend!
Think of this. Before Saul heard a word from Ananias, a stranger, before he knew the answers to his questions, Saul felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. He turned toward the voice, his blind eyes trying to take in the face of a man who would touch him so kindly.
A faithful friend knows how to hold someone when he or she is hurting, how to communicate love with touch, even restore confidence with a special grip. A faithful friend understands the power of a hug, and isn't embarrassed to hold on to the hug a little longer than necessary. Don't underestimate the power of a gentle touch.
And if I look like I need it one day, how about a kiss on both cheeks?
III. Speak the right words at the right time
Here's a trivia question. What was the second name Saul had in Scripture?
"Paul?" Wrong. Paul is the third name Saul had in Scripture.
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord - Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here - has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 9:17)
You probably spotted it. The second name Saul had was Brother Saul.
It may not seem like a big deal to us, but you can bet Saul never forgot the day a man called him Brother for the first time. Imagine sitting in darkness for three days without food, drink, or encouragement and suddenly receiving a kind word. What a gift!
A faithful friend says not simply kind words, but the right words at the right time. Ananias shared the truth with Saul in a very gentle way and baptized him. The first person whom Saul saw after he heard the truth of the Holy Spirit was a God-sent friend.
Ananias showered Saul with some of the most precious gifts you can give another human being. He was there for Saul, he touched him like a friend who cared, and he spoke kindly to him, with the right words at the right time.
Over the next several days, he taught Saul, he encouraged him, and he introduced him to more people who had that same touch, that same kindness, that same love born of the Holy Spirit. What wonderful power Saul discovered in Damascus! The first form of that power he discovered was the power of faithful friends.
IV. Don't waver in your support
In 1967, Stu Webber was in the U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was brutal training for brutal times. The war with Vietnam was the backdrop for the young men trying to survive the heat, humidity, and the rigors of the camp.
Now a pastor and author, Webber writes of the day the raspy voice of the drill sergeant barked out his first, passionate speech. "We are here to save your lives," he told the young men headed for combat. "First, we're going to see to it that you overcome all your natural fears. … And second, we are going to show you just how much incredible stress the human mind and body can endure. And when we're finished with you, you will be the U.S. Army's best! America's best. You will be confident. You will survive, even in combat. And you will accomplish your mission!"
Before he dismissed the formation, the sergeant gave Webber and his fellow recruits their first assignment. These guys were ready for anything. They had mentally prepared for a 10-mile run in full battle gear. They'd already envisioned rappelling down a sheer cliff. So what would be the tough guy's first tough order?
"Find yourself a Ranger buddy," he growled. "You will stick together. You will never leave each other. You will encourage each other, and, as necessary, you will carry each other."
It was the army's way of saying, difficult assignments require a friend. Together is better. (Stu Weber, Locking Arms, Sisters, Ore: Multnomah Books, 1995, 77-78).
During the first week of Saul's spiritual training camp, he met Barnabas. He had no idea then that God had placed next to him the one man the church had already nicknamed "The Encourager" (Acts 4:36). What a Ranger-type buddy to have!
When Saul left Damascus, he walked back to Jerusalem, apparently learning all he could from the Christians who walked with him. The conversations must have been intense as Saul learned all he could about Jesus.He would have come to Capernaum as he returned to Jerusalem, and Saul would have seen, for the first time, the house where Jesus had lived. In Capernaum, he would have met men and women who had been healed by Jesus. He would have seen the light in their eyes as they told the stories of what had happened on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
All along the way, for more than 120 miles, Saul would have met people who had been changed by Jesus.
Imagine his excitement as he returned to Jerusalem. Finally, he would meet Peter, and John, and James. He'd sit down with Bartholomew, Andrew, and Simon the Zealot, and have dinner with Thomas. He would meet them all, these men who had walked with Jesus. He would tire them out with his questions, he would wait on their every need, he would pour over the Torah with them, looking for the marks of Jesus in the Scripture.
But when he arrived, he couldn't find a single disciple. Every time he got close to tracking someone down, he found an empty house. Every time he was ready to hold out his hand in friendship, he grasped nothing but air. After a few days, the truth seemed obvious. The disciples were hiding from Saul. They had heard that he'd become a believer, but they didn't believe it. They were terrified of him (Acts 9:26).
At that point, Saul needed a friend to stand with him, and he didn't have far to look.
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. (Acts 9:27-28)
What a beautiful example Barnabas was. As it was then, it is today. A faithful friend stands with you, stands up for you, and doesn't waver in his support. If you've found such a friend, you've found a great source of power. If you are that friend, God's power is working through you!
A faithful friend will stay with you.
Barnabas' friendship wasn't just short term. When he became a friend to Saul, Barnabas made a commitment for the long haul.
After meeting the disciples, Saul took some time off. He retreated for three years of study, prayer, and reflection, spending some of that time in Tarsus, the town of his birth, some in Arabia, and some back in Damascus (Acts 9:30; Gal. 1:17-18). In time, the church wondered what had happened to the passionate convert named Saul. At that point, a friend went to find Saul.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. (Acts 11:25-26)
Barnabas stayed with Saul for a whole year. And beyond that year, Barnabas stayed with Saul for a lifetime. They started churches together, they grew missionaries together, and they even stayed together in the midst of disagreement. In short, Barnabas was the kind of friend Saul needed, for Saul needed a man to stay with him.
Think about the way Ananias and Barnabas helped change the world. Saul - who became known as Paul - eventually would become the most important missionary in Christian history, a leader the equal of Peter and John in the early church, and the most prolific writer in the New Testament.
How many millions, becoming Christians, have been freed by the concept of salvation by grace, and not by works? How many marriages have been saved by the words of 1 Corinthians 13, "The Love Chapter?" How many anxious hearts have been calmed by the peace that passes all understanding, or the knowledge that God can work good in every situation? God has used those scriptural concepts for centuries, for millions upon millions of believers. I've been changed by those words, and you have, too.
Paul wrote them. What a dynamic, confident, irrepressible, crucial leader.
Flashback now to the day when this same man lay crumpled in the dirt on the outskirts of Damascus. A bright light and an overwhelming Savior had just taken his eyesight, his spiritual foundation, and his emotional health.
As Saul stumbled into the city, he didn't want food, and he didn't want water. But he needed a friend. So God reached down to two men and asked them to help change the world. God spoke to Ananias, and to Barnabas, and asked them to be a friend to a man who desperately needed them.
And the world was changed.
God works in simple ways. Somewhere, perhaps today, a person near you needs a faithful friend. If you answer God's call to be that friend, it might be you who changes the world.