a sermon in celebration of the life and ministry of Keith A. A. Weston
St Mary’s Church, Thame, Friday 22 February 2013
by the Rt. Revd. Prof N. T. Wright, University of St Andrews
‘Those whom he justified, he also glorified’: Romans 8, of course, and verse 30. Many of you will know the passage by heart, as I’m sure Keith did.
Let me say what a privilege it is to preach at his request today. It’s tempting to add my own grateful memories to those we’ve already heard, but I know what Keith would say to me: Don’t talk about me, talk about Jesus! Preach the gospel! And it was Keith himself who chose Romans 8 as our text today. As his son Paul explained to me, it was always one of his ‘Desert Island Texts’.
I often used that tag when interviewing clergy for parish jobs. On Desert Island Discs you choose a book, but they tell you ‘You’ve already got the Bible and Shakespeare’. I used to say to clergy, ‘tell me your two Desert Island texts’ – and I used to add, ‘And you’ve already got John 20 and Romans 8.’
That sends me for a moment across to John, where we find a graphic personal outworking of Paul’s theme: those whom he justified, he also glorified. In John 21 Jesus meets Peter on the shore after Peter’s disastrous denial. Three times Jesus asks him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Three times Peter answers with a tentative Yes. The narrative then cries out for a word of forgiveness, but Jesus gives a word of commission. Feed my sheep. And then a word of warning: follow me, all the way to the cross. Those whom he justified, he also glorified: those to whom he gives the word of free forgiveness, to them he also gives the commission to join him in his costly work, to come when he calls, to go where he sends, to do what he tells you. The word of forgiveness and the word of call and commission regularly come together. We are not forgiven in order to sit back and do nothing. We are justified in order that we may also be glorified.
And equally every call and commission in the service of Jesus begins with that free, undeserved, by-grace-alone forgiveness. When I was in Durham a national committee proposed a new ordination service which included lots of creative and exciting things, and to make room they proposed some cuts, including the confession and absolution. My Durham colleagues and I agreed that this was nonsense. All Christian calling and ministry flows from the forgiving grace of God. That’s where Peter started; that’s where we all start. Start anywhere else and you’re building on sand. We thank God today for a life and ministry which was rooted in that forgiving and justifying grace and never grew weary in speaking of it. Those he glorified have already been justified.
Now clearly I’m taking the word ‘glorified’ in an unusual sense, and I shall come back to that in a moment. But first we look, as Keith wanted us to do, at the way in which Paul in Romans 8 sums up the teaching of the letter so far on justification itself.
To see what Paul is doing you need to understand the letter as a whole, which I first expounded in spring 1975 at Keith’s request for a St Ebbe’s midweek series. Romans is both wonderfully simple and wonderfully complex. To gaze on it as a whole is like looking at a town from an aeroplane. Here are the main roads going this way and that; there is the river winding through, and the railway carving straight lines in and out. But when you walk through the town it doesn’t feel like that. There are odd corners and little lanes and shops and cafes and you easily forget how it all fits together. Romans is like that. It’s full of individual paragraphs you could preach on for a year, powerful and poignant passages that say, Forget everything else and look at me! And it’s easy to forget where the main road is, particularly because later developers have fiddled around with the street signs, making new one-way systems which don’t quite work, like that time in Oxford when some students switched the signs and had traffic going up Longwall Street to South Parks Road, down Mansfield Road, left along Holywell and back up South Parks again, round and round with no way out. And so some people have imagined that once Paul has expounded ‘justification’ in chapters 3 and 4 that’s it, and you just need to go on round and round it. Today’s passage shows how wrong that is. If you want to understand justification you need to start with chapters 1 and 2 and run all the way to 8, and indeed on into 10 though we won’t get there today. But the climax of the letter so far, our text from chapter 8 verse 30, is not simply harking back to something Paul said before. It is bringing the whole train of thought to its dramatic climax. Those whom he justified he also glorified. It is the Q. E. D. at the end of eight whole chapters.
So how does ‘justification’ work? Here is the old high road through the middle of town, ignoring the misleading signposts (let the reader understand). Paul sets up in chapters 1 and 2 a majestic last judgment scene. The creator God will sort out the whole world, judging with utter justice, disclosing and assessing the secrets of all hearts. That is the road we see going in at one side of the town. But what’s going to happen to that road now? Then comes the good news, the gospel which dear Keith so loved to preach. The good news is that the verdict of the last day has been brought forward into the middle of history. Something has happened in the middle of the town. There is a cross-roads. The creator God called a covenant people, Abraham’s family, to be the means of rescuing the world; and though Israel as a whole was unfaithful to that commission, the living God himself, in the person of his only son, has come as Abraham’s true seed, great David’s greater son, to be faithful to that purpose, to be obedient even to the death of the cross. And in that cross, the ultimate Passover, the judgment is poured out, astonishingly, not on the sinners who deserve it, but on sin itself. God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering, says Paul, and he condemned sin in the flesh. The final judgment came forward into the middle of history. God did not spare his own son, Romans 8.32, but gave him up for us all, like Abraham with Isaac only much, much more so. That is why Paul gives that great shout of triumph in Romans 8.1: there is therefore now no condemnation for those in the Messiah, Jesus! We’ll be singing it shortly: No condemnation now I dread! Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Mine? Yes: because the road that came into town with the announcement of judgment has met with the road coming across, which is the mercy of God. This illustration doesn’t actually work terribly well – Keith never managed to teach me how to keep my illustrations under control – but the point is that something has now happened to that judgment. All those who are ‘in the Messiah’ are covered, shielded, protected, like the Israelites sheltering under the blood of the Passover lamb. That’s Romans 3. They are declared to be Abraham’s true family, Romans 4. They are therefore the true humanity, Romans 5. And they set off on their journey through the Red Sea as newly-freed slaves, as in Romans 6; they find themselves at Mount Sinai in Romans 7, only to discover in Romans 8 that what the law could not do God has done in his Son and by his Spirit, and they are on the way home through the wilderness to their promised inheritance. This is the new Exodus. This is the full exposition of what Paul means in Romans 3 by speaking of being justified through the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus.
And who are these people? What is the flag under which they travel, which enables them to face that coming judgment with utter security? It is the cross, the sign of the unshakeable, unbreakable love of the one true God. It is the cross of the Messiah who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who indeed intercedes for us, and who therefore assures us that no-one shall bring any charge against God’s elect. And the word we use for our utter reliance on the cross, our total dependance on what was done there for us, is the same word Paul uses for the faithfulness which the Messiah enacted there in the first place. ‘Faith.’ The faith which looks at the cross and believes that there the living and loving God gave his only son for us – that faith is the one and only badge of the whole people of God, the sign under which Jew and Greek come together, slave and free become one, male and female stand side by side on even ground in Abraham’s forgiven family, the Spirit-led children of God. Faith is the Messiah-badge, and for its wearers there is no condemnation. They are justified; they are glorified.
And so the decisive, one-off act of the Messiah in the middle of history opens up this new reality. The condemnation, the final judgment, has already taken place. And those who believe this gospel are assured here and now that the verdict of the future day has already been announced over the Messiah and over all his people. Justification by faith in the present time: the covenant has been fulfilled in Messiah and Spirit, the great final lawcourt scene has been revealed ahead of the final day. And there is no condemnation for those in Messiah Jesus.
This is the glorious truth Paul then celebrates in that final paragraph of Romans 8, which picks up all the themes from the letter so far and whirls them around like the coda at the end of a symphonic movement. It is, in the end, all about love. God did not spare his own son; who shall bring any charge against God’s elect; who shall separate us from the love of the Messiah? In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in the Messiah Jesus.
This is the truth of justification, the constantly astonishing reality that we have heard our own future verdict pronounced by the judge himself. You remember there were those foolish people in the 1920s who went to the newly established Soviet Union and were shown all the glories of the bright new world that was supposedly dawning there. They came back to the West and declared ‘I have seen the future and its works.’ Misguided, of course, as are all such political eschatologies whether of right or left. But the gospel declares that in the Messiah Jesus we have heard the future and it’s true: we have heard the verdict pronounced, the verdict that says judgment has already been passed on sin at the cross and that we sinners who look to that cross with the eye of grateful faith are declared to be ‘in the right’, ‘righteous’, ‘forgiven’, ‘members of God’s people’. It is God who justifies: who is to condemn?
And those whom he justified, he also glorified. It has been customary for western Christians to collapse this promise of ‘glory’ into the traditional picture of ‘heaven’. But Paul never mentions ‘heaven’ in Romans 8. In fact it’s rare in the whole New Testament for people to talk about the intermediate state between a person’s death and their final resurrection. Paul says in Philippians, My desire is to be with Christ, which is far better – and then he goes on later to speak of the final resurrection as something beyond that again. And as we entrust dear Keith to the safe keeping and personal presence of Christ himself, we look forward with the whole New Testament to the completion of the new creation. In Romans 8.17–30, which Keith specified for today, we have one of the most glorious pictures of the ultimate new creation, the renewal of all things, seen here in the powerful image of the new world to be born from the womb of the old. The creator will do for the whole creation, at the last, what he did for Jesus at Easter. And in that new world all Jesus’ people will be raised from the dead to share, not just in living in it, but in looking after it, as the true image-bearing human beings. We are ‘heirs of God’, he says in verse 17, ‘and fellow heirs with the Messiah, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.’ In other words, we are to be, verse 29, ‘conformed to the image of his son, so that he may be the firstborn among many siblings.’ Those whom he justified, he also glorified.
The ‘inheritance’, you see, is not a disembodied ‘heaven’, as we have so often imagined. The ‘inheritance’ is the whole new creation. Paul is echoing Psalm 2, where God promises the Messiah that he will give him the nations as his inheritance; and also Psalm 8, indicating the intended rule of imagebearing humans over the world. He joins them together, as in Romans 5. Paul is also picking up Romans 4.13, where he says that God’s promise to Abraham was that he should inherit – not just one country in the Middle East, but the world, the kosmos. The whole world has become God’s holy land, the ‘inheritance’ he promises to his people. And for the world to be redeemed God’s faithful justified people must be glorified, must be raised from the dead in order to be put in charge of this new world, to be stewards of the new creation. Keith specified that we should read from the RSV, but I do just need to make one little change: in verse 21, the point is not that creation will share our glorious freedom; rather, creation is going to enjoy the freedom that will come to it when God’s children are glorified, in other words, when they are put in charge as they were meant to be. Creation has been longing for humans to be put right, like a horse longing for its beloved rider to recover from his serious injury and take to the saddle once more. Those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, says Paul in 5.17, will reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah. Those whom he justified, he also glorified.
We have often ignored this theme, but it’s there in Revelation as well as Romans: the royal priesthood who will reign on the earth. We sing about going to ‘rest and reign with him in heaven’, but that’s a fudge: rest in heaven, yes, until the great new day dawns; and then, share his reign in the new world where heaven and earth are joined together finally and for ever. That is what Paul means by being ‘glorified’. That is the future for all who are justified.
But with glorification, as with justification, the future has already come forward into the present. Jesus is already ruling the world, as he said at the end of Matthew 28. And if we are ‘in the Messiah’, indwelt by his Spirit, we already share that rule. What does that look like, here and now? We have often ignored Jesus’ own redefinition of power: the rulers of the world do it in one way, he said, but we’re going to do it the other way. The son of man came not to be served but to serve. That is true power, and it is already our birthright in the Messiah, and as we celebrate the life of a true servant we glimpse what it means. Jesus the suffering servant is already ruling the world; and his people share that rule, not by ordinary worldly power but precisely through their suffering and their prayer. The sufferings of the present time are not merely something we must pass through to get to the glory. They are themselves, strangely, the means of that glory. In all these things, says Paul, we are more than conquerors; yes,in all these things, not despite them or pretending they don’t really exist. They are the means of the victory, as the cross was for Jesus himself. Jesus promised this kingdom, this rule, to the poor in spirit, to the meek. Yes, and not least to the mourners. Don’t be ashamed of being mourners. Jesus promised that they, too, are among those whom he uses in his kingdom-work. Those whom he justified, he also glorified, and the glory is that of the crucified Son.
And with that we come to the heart of it all, to the mystery of glory revealed in Jesus and the Spirit. If we had asked Saul of Tarsus about the glory that was to be revealed, he would have assumed we were talking about the promise at the end of Ezekiel, that one day the temple would be rebuilt and ‘the glory’, the Shekinah, would come once more to dwell within it. Throughout Romans 8 Paul has been alluding to that promise, and hinting that it’s come true in Jesus and the Spirit. As he says elsewhere, we are the temple of the living God; the glory has returned in the person of Jesus and now, astonishingly, in the person and power of the Spirit.
And what does it look like in the present time when God’s people are thus glorified? It looks like Romans 8 verses 26 and 27. I remember Keith warning me before the first sermon I preached in St Ebbe’s, over forty years ago, that as Spurgeon had said praying and preaching are like two legs, and if you don’t want the sermon to limp the praying must keep pace with the preaching. Keith was a man of prayer. The intimacy of Romans 8.26–27 is not something we easily talk about; but I suspect that he, like all true ministers of the gospel, knew what Paul was referring to. This is the very heart of Paul’s practical trinitarian theology, the point at which the Spirit groans within, the Father who searches the hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, and the people in whom this extraordinary divine conversation is taking place are being formed, whether or not they realise it, after the pattern of the Messiah. Our glory in the present is focused as we stand in prayer at the place where the world and the church are in pain so that God himself by his Spirit may share that agony, so that the Messiah may be formed in us, so that the gospel may be seen at work in power through our praying as well as our preaching. That is what it means for us to be conformed to the image of the Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. That is what we sign on for when we hear and answer his call as Keith did all those years ago. That is the life we begin when we know ourselves in faith to be justified through the Messiah’s death. That is what it means that those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to this? We thank God for Keith, for the life of one who answered that call, who preached that gospel, who shared already in his praying and preaching the strange Spirit-filled glory. We thank God, with Keith, for Jesus himself, his death under the weight of sin’s condemnation and his inheritance of the whole world as his domain. And we thank God for allowing us not only to hear fromKeith’s lips but to know in his personal life and his pastoral ministry such a rich measure of the quality which Paul celebrates at the end of the chapter. Those whom he justified, he also glorified; and now we find that ‘justice’ and ‘glory’ are themselves alternative names for love. So who shall separate us from that love? In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure, as Keith was sure, as please God we all of us here are sure, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Alleluia! Amen.
Keith Weston was Rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford in the 1960s and 1970s when Maggie and I lived there. He took our wedding, and baptized our first child. He was a wonderful, cheerful, wise, prayerful pastor, preacher and friend. When he had a heart attack, over ten years ago, he made preparations for his funeral and invited me to preach at it. Happily he recovered and lived much longer than he then thought, but the family insisted that the invitation still stood. It was an honour and delight to do it.