Sometimes, I am approached by some Christians who ask me, “Have you been saved?” Every now and again, I hear some Christians say, “I accepted Jesus and I have been saved.” I also have people asking me, “Do people who do not believe in Jesus be saved?” When I hear questions and statements like these, it makes me think about why I am a Christian, about the different Christian traditions, about my non-Christian friends. It makes me think about the passage from Mark chapter 16, verses 14 to 16, which I will proclaim to you in a while. It also makes me reflect on the idea of salvation. What is salvation? Lastly, it makes me wonder, how can we think of salvation and Christians as LGBTIQ Christians? This is my intention this afternoon. I would like to reflect on the idea of salvation, for Christians and non-Christians, and for LGBTIQ Christians. But first, let us listen to this passage from Mark chapter 16, verses 14 to 16:
Later Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he scolded them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And Jesus said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16: 14-16)
According to bible scholars, the Gospel of Mark ends suddenly at chapter 16, verse 8. According to Philip Van Linden, “some first- or second-century Christians tried to ‘complete’ [Mark’s] Gospel drama by adding scenes that they thought Mark should have added himself.” So this section, Mark verse 16, verses 14 to 18, is considered a “shorter ending” and “another attempt of the early church to end Mark’s Gospel more smoothly.” So it is a later addition. It is an important part of the Gospel because it further reflects the experiences and faith of the early Christians in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Philip Van Linden suggests that “Mark’s abrupt ending leaves it up to his readers to ‘complete’ his Gospel in their lives.” What Van Linden is trying to say is that the Gospel of Mark can be seen as inviting Christians of all generations to read their own story within it. In this way, the Gospel of Mark is not just a time-specific record of ancient human experiences of Jesus. It is an ongoing, growing, living testimony to Christians in the past, in the present and in the future.
Understanding Mark 16: 14-16
Mark chapter 16, verses 14 to 16 gives us many glimpses into the lives of the early Christians. The author of this section tells us that Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples when “they were sitting at the table.” This is a Eucharistic image. It is the image of an early Church gathered together as a community as they ate bread, drank wine and listened to stories of Jesus. We are told that Jesus “scolded [the early disciples] for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” This is an indication of the faith of the early Christians. Obviously many followers of Jesus were scandalised by his suffering and death. They had expected a hero, a pahlawan or warrior who would overthrow the Romans who were occupying Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus allowed himself to be betrayed by his own people, the Jews, and to be murdered on the cross by the Romans. They felt disillusioned and disheartened with Jesus. Nevertheless, many other followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus in their midst, even after his death. They could see him through the eyes of faith, touch and feel him alive with them, hear him speaking into their hearts and minds, and experience him as inspiring them with his Spirit. For these followers, Jesus was risen and they wanted to share this beautiful reality with those who were disillusioned and disheartened. By portraying Jesus as scolding the disciples “for their lack of faith and stubbornness,” the believers of the Risen Jesus wanted to inspire those who had not yet believed that Jesus was still living and working among them. That is why the author continues by adding that Jesus said, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” This is an image of kerygma, or proclamation. It is a call to the early Christians to share their experiences as men, women and children who have experienced the risen Jesus. It is a message that attempts to inspire non-believers to believe in and surrender to Jesus. This was an important mission of the early Church, so that the suffering and death of Jesus would not be meaningless, and that the message of Jesus would continue to live on.
Some Christians understand this verse to mean that they must evangelise by sharing their stories and converting non-Christians to Christianity. This method of evangelisation is particularly popular among evangelical and pentecostal Christians. While we can respect and appreciate this style of evangelisation, we must remember that there are other ways to evangelise. There are other ways to share our Christians experiences with non-Christians without making them Christians. When we live our lives as Christians faithfully and to the best of our ability, we are actually witnessing to non-Christians. Witnessing is a form of evangelisation. Through witnessing, we show others the impact of Jesus in our lives. We show others how our lives have been transformed because of our relationship with Jesus. I believe that it does not matter if they become Christian or not. What I believe is important is that we share with others the beauty of our relationship with Jesus, and the wonderful things that can take place because of that relationship.
The kerygma or proclamation of Jesus that I mentioned earlier continues in this very difficult verse: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” We need to understand this verse in the context of the early Church’s desire that the suffering, death and message of Jesus continue to be meaningful. This verse reflects the early Church’s desire for risen Jesus to live on in the minds and hearts of Christians. Therefore, it is actually a testimony of the faith practices of the early Church. It is really the early Church’s practice of inspiring people to become Christians, and to follow and commit to Jesus through a ritual of Baptism using water and oil. Baptism became a sign of commitment as a Christian. Therefore, I suggest that when we read these words, “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned,” we must read it in the context of those who wanted to become Christians without being committed to Jesus Christ. Perhaps there were some early believers who were baptised, but who did not practise the message of Jesus in their lives. Perhaps this can also be reminder to us, that if we are Christians or want to become Christians, it is not enough to be baptised. We must also be committed to Jesus by following his message.
Salvation and LGBTIQ Christians
Let me conclude by reflecting a bit on the idea of salvation. Many of us Christians use the words “save,” “salvation” and “Saviour” very easily. Perhaps some of us may not even really understand what “save,” “salvation” and “Saviour” mean. “Salvation” is a difficult word to understand. Sometimes it means deliverance from sin. In other words, because we commit sin and are sinners, we are held in hostage by sin and the devil. When Jesus comes and delivers us, he saves us. We are totally helpless without him. And when we die, we will live together with Jesus in heaven. Therefore, every person must believe in Jesus. This is a popular view among all Christians. For me, this interpretation of salvation only favours people who call themselves Christians. This interpretation suggests that to be a Christian is to belong to an exclusive club. Only Christians may enter, and all others, tidak dibenarkan masuk! I do not really like this interpretation of salvation. If we hold on to the idea that only Christians or people who believe in Jesus, we are excluding millions of people who do not believe in or heard of Jesus Christ, perhaos even our friends and families. This is an exclusive, not inclusive view. As LGBTIQ Christians who understand and have experienced what it means to be excluded, we must not have an exclusive idea of salvation. If we hold on to an exclusive idea of salvation, we have no right to ask that we be accepted by family, friends, society, church, religion and theology. If we hold on to an exclusive idea of salvation, we are excluding people from God and salvation just as we ourselves have been excluded because of our gender identity, our sexual orientation or our love for people who are queer.
But there is another interpretation of “salvation.” According to the lesbian feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen, salvation can be understood as working towards a fruitful, human life. Jesus came to teach us a way of living out our full potential as human beings. When we cooperate with God through the message of Jesus, we become the human persons that God has created us to be. Personally, I love this idea of salvation. It means that we are not totally helpless without Jesus. Instead, each one of us has a potential to grow to be the person that God intends us to be. Second, when we live our lives faithfully as Christians, we are living our full potential as human beings, just as God desires for each of us. Third, and most importantly for me, it means that everyone can be saved. A person does not have to be Christian to be saved. As long as he or she tries his or her best to be a good human being, God brings God’s salvation to this person. The fact that everyone can be saved is very important, because it means that everybody can be saved. It means that each person who seeks a life of justice, love and honesty can live in and be with God, and God can live in and be with each person who seeks to live a life of justice, love and honesty. No one is excluded. This idea of salvation reminds us that salvation is a communal reality, not just a personal reality. As LGBTIQ Christians, we need to take on a more inclusive understanding of salvation in which we can share our lives as Christians with others without trying to convert them to Christianity. If people are attracted to Jesus and Christianity because of our witnessing, that is fine. But it is not a must for them to receive salvation. Those of us who choose to be or to remain Christians do so because we have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ, or because the message of Jesus just somehow “clicks” with us. If we have experienced divine love, or because the message of Jesus transforms us and makes us grow, then of course we remain as followers of Christ. And when we speak to others about our faith, it is not because we want to simply “convert” them, but because we want to share the joy, the delight and the power we experience in being followers of Jesus, who teaches us to lead fruitful lives as human beings in his own special way.
My friends, let us remember that our God is not a Christian. God is God. God is an inclusive God who embraces everybody. God wants each person to be with God in this life and in the next life. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are very blessed and privileged because we have heard and we continue to use to the message of Jesus to live as human persons of justice, love and honesty. Let us continue to grow stronger in our commitment to Jesus Christ, our teacher, our guide and our inspiration. Amen.
This reflection is based on a sermon delivered at Good Samaritan Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, November 30, 2014.
Philip Van Linden, “Mark,” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament, 1992.
Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 1998.
© Joseph N. Goh | josephgoh [at] josephgoh [dot] org