A sermon given for the thanksgiving service of Arthur Maelor Griffiths, and Mavis Gwyneth Griffiths.
It was Lord Birkett who said: “I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain they are still going”. As I begin to speak I am conscious that we have already heard six other people give ‘words of appreciation’ – a seventh may seem a little over the top. On the other hand, this afternoon’s service is not your ordinary service of thanksgiving. We are in fact dealing with two people – two people who although devoted to one another also lived two quite independent lives.
My first memory of Nain and Taid, as we used to call them, was when I made my first visit to Wrexham. I had met Caroline at Cambridge, and now I was to be introduced to them. As I entered their home I felt that I was being set an unusually difficult entrance exam. I knew that Caroline’s mother was a Latin mistress – but I didn’t bargain for their cat being called ‘Pliny’. How could I keep my end up in a home where even the cat had a classical name. Then, of course, Caroline’s parents were Welsh. And I hadn’t a clue as how to pronounce Welsh place names I made my first faux-pas when I remarked that the train had gone through a place called Ruabon. I’m told that the night before our wedding Caroline’s mother had a sleepless night wondering whether this Englishman was good enough for her daughter. However, I think I made up for things by fathering the four brightest grandchildren on earth! To be fair, I was accepted into the family, and I quickly discovered that I had the kindest of parents-in-law.
As many of you know, we had hoped that Caroline’s parents would come and live with us. Indeed, at one stage the plan was that they would move down at the end of October. But sadly this would not to be. In the end it was only toward the end of January that they moved down – and then, not to our home, but to a nursing home. We thank God, however, for those three weeks – they were good weeks, and we were able to visit them every day. We thank God too that in the end they died within a day or so of one another. They would not have wanted it any other way. Indeed, when we saw their bodies in the chapel of rest, they looked as if they were pleased with themselves for having managed to be in control even of their dying. If there were any regrets as far as Caroline’s mother was concerned, it was that the death announcement let the cat out of the bag in respect of the fact that she was older than Maelor – for she had celebrated her 86th birthday in the January, so she died aged 86, while Maelor, six months younger, died at the age of 85.
But this afternoon my task is not to give a further word of appreciation. Rather as a minister of the Gospel my task is to speak of the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying. Indeed, I know that this is what Caroline’s parents would have wanted me to do. I find it significant that Caroline’s father requested that we today play the song “There lived a man who walked by Galilee”. I am sure that he would have us take note of the line, “And he wanted us to follow in his way”
Actually, there was another song on the same record which he we might have played too. The words may not be the finest poetry, but they convey a great truth. Let me read some of the words to you:
The open arms of Jesus on his saving cross
The open arms of Jesus welcome each of us.
Though we so often fail him
There is no reproach or fuss
The open arms of Jesus always welcome us
The open arms of Jesus teach us to forgive
The open arms of Jesus tell us how to live
His open arms can banish enmity and hate
They show a love for all men that we must emulate.
Caroline’s parents were people of strong faith. True, Caroline’s father and I did not always see eye-to-eye theologically. Indeed, he often loved to bait me and see if I would rise to some of his more radical views. But at the end of the day, how we dot the theological ‘i’s and cross the theological ‘t’s is unimportant. What counts is that we can personalise our faith and say with the Apostle Paul, “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me”. Precisely because of their personal faith in Jesus we know that for both Maelor and Mavis death is not the end. On the basis of the Christian Gospel we can affirm that they have entered into the nearer presence of the Lord.
As I was reflecting on what to say, my mind went to the words of Jesus read to us by Susannah: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” [Jn 14.2]. On this day when we are very conscious of our loss, let’s focus our minds on the comfort that Jesus can bring to us,
In heaven there is room for all
“In my Father’s house are many rooms”.
God never has to put up a no vacancy sign!
As far as you and I are concerned, there is a limit to the number of people who can stay with us at any one time. But not so in heaven. Heaven never becomes over-crowded. Heaven is as wide as the heart of God, and in heaven there is room for all.
Therefore Jesus says to his friends: “Don’t be afraid. People may shut their doors upon you. But in heaven you will never be shut out”. To us too Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid – Let not your heart be troubled” – there is room for you, there is room for Maelor and Mavis, there is room for us all.
Jesus has carved out the trail
“I go to prepare a place for you”.
Jesus has gone on in front of us for us to follow.
As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it: “Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” [Hebs 6.20]. In the Roman army the “forerunners” were the reconnaissance troops.
Their task was to go ahead of the main army and blaze the trail; their task was to ensure that it was safe for the rest of the troops to follow. Jesus has gone on ahead and blazed a trail through the valley of the shadow of death, and we through faith are called to follow him.
“Don’t be afraid”, says Jesus. “Let not our hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”.
Heaven is where Jesus is
“Where I am, you may be also”.
People have often speculated on what heaven is going to be like. Some have envisaged themselves twanging on their harps along with the angels. All that is mere speculation. Our knowledge about heaven is limited. But there is one thing we do know. Heaven is where Jesus is. It is this one thing we can say with certainty about Maelor and Mavis: they are with Jesus, and he will be with them for ever. So “Let not your hearts be troubled”.
Jesus is the way to the Father
How do we know that all this is true – that Maelor and Mavis are now with their Lord? Because Jesus assures us that he is the way – the only way – to the Father.
“You know the way… I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me”.
Jesus doesn’t simply show us the way – he is the way – he takes us by the hand and leads us along the way that leads to life everlasting. Many years ago Maelor and Mavis, quite separately and independently, first put their hands into the hand of Jesus. This afternoon we rejoice that this same Jesus has finally brought them over into the kingdom of life and light. It is this that makes a difference to our sadness. Our friends, our loved ones, are in the Father’s house. “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”.
God of all grace and God of all comfort, we praise you for all that you have done for us in Jesus Christ. We bless you that when Jesus died on his Cross, he died with his arms open for us all; and that when you raised him from the dead you promised that all those who trust in him will share his resurrection life. For the assurance and hope of our faith, we thank you.
This afternoon we come too to thank you for Maelor and Mavis. We thank you for the love and affection they showed to their family and for the kindness and friendship they gave to so many. We thank you for strength of character, their integrity of spirit, their keenness of intellect, their breadth of mind, and their warmth of heart. We thank you for the dedicated service they gave at school, at church, and within the wider community; and for the impact their lives made on so many people. We thank for all those happy memories we have to treasure up as the months and years roll by.
And so we pray for all those of us will miss them. In particular we pray for Caroline, and for Lyn, but also for Jonathan, Timothy, Susannah and Benjamin, as also for Lynette and Gareth and all the wider family.
God of all comfort, in the midst of pain, heal us with your love; in the darkness of sorrow shine upon us the morning star. Awaken in us the spirit of mercy, that as we feel the pain of others, we may share with them the comfort we receive from you. Bring us, at the last, with all your people, into the kingdom of your glory, where death itself is no more, and every tear is wiped from every eye.