“I am free, so they should be free.”: Reflections on Harriet Tubman and the Great Commission

Sermon by Rev. Kristen Yates originally given on January 19, 2020 during MLK weekend at The Mission Cincinnati, featuring Matthew 28:16-20 and 1 Peter 1:1-2:5) Audio can be listened to here.

(Image above: By woodcut artist not listed; W.J. Moses, printer; stereotyped by Dennis Bro’s & Co. – Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah H Bradford, )

“I am free so they should be free”

These were words spoken by Amarinta Ross, a former slave who had run away from her slave owners and had made the treacherous journey from Maryland to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania all on her own in 1849.

Now, a free person, Amarinta began to make a new life for herself.  First, she took on a new identity; she changed her name, which was a common practice among those who had newly found their freedom.  From that time forward, she would be known as Harriet Tubman.  And then, Harriet set out to find paid work for herself. Over the next many months of her life, she worked as a maid and a cook, and settled into life as a free woman.  

Yet, as wonderful as it was to be free, Harriet was nevertheless dissatisfied. For why should she be free while her family was still in bondage?  Surely, something must be done about this.  And the Lord God seemed to agree; in fact, He was the one behind Harriet’s conviction.

For many years now, Harriet had had a close relationship with God.  Raised in the Methodist tradition with influences from other Christian traditions, Harriet was known for her religious fervor and her ability to hear the voice of God in her prayer times and her dreams.  And now it seemed as if God was asking her to do the impossible: to lead other slaves into freedom – an endeavor that could easily lead her to being re-enslaved or killed.

Nevertheless, despite the risks, Harriet obeyed the Lord’s prompting, and over the next several years of her life, Harriet risked her life over and over again, returning to the South over 13 times, personally leading 70 slaves to freedom, giving instruction to 50 more on how to escape, and helping even more people in her role as scout and spy during the Civil War.  It is no surprise that the people of the South came to know Harriet as Moses.

Well, Harriet was a pretty incredible person, and I was just recently re-introduced to her story in the movie “Harriet”, which was just out this Fall and was really interesting.  

I couldn’t help but find her story inspiring, and ever since I saw the movie a few weeks ago and have read a bit more about her, I haven’t been able to get her words out of my mind, “I am free so they should be free.”  What holy dissatisfaction she had, which led her to say these words and then to act upon them.  What courage and conviction she had to follow God’s call even when it meant she could lose her hard-fought freedom.

As I have reflected on Harriet’s life and then thought on my own, I have been led to wonder:  Do I have such holy dissatisfaction?  Do I have such courage and conviction? Do I have a desire like hers to see others who are living in bondage come into freedom, whether that is physical freedom or is in fact spiritual freedom found in Christ alone?  And do I have a desire to see others walk into this freedom even if it means sacrifice on my own part.  

Unfortunately, I am not always sure that I do. 

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could wholeheartedly say along with Harriet, “I am free so they should be free.”  

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we as a church community could say, “We are free, so they should be free.” 

If all Christians were to say and act upon this statement, I am telling you, it would be amazing how the world would change.  

Let us pray.  ……

When Jesus met with his 11 disciples on the mountain in Galilee after his resurrection, it must have been a wonderful but also disorienting time for his disciples.  The man they had loved and followed for three years who had just been crucified on a cross was standing there before them.  It must have been a tear-filled, exhilarating, and joyful experience, and the result was that they worshipped him. Although, the Gospel of Matthew does let us know that some doubted; there were some who could not yet quite comprehend what was happening before their very eyes.  

Slowly but surely, however, the disciples would come to know the full picture.  Over the next years and even decades, they would reflect on their time with Jesus and on all that he had said to them, and through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit indwelling their hearts would come to more fully comprehend the Good News.  Jesus, who was God-made-flesh, had come to this world to set it free through his death and resurrection.    

In this moment, however, the disciples did yet not fully comprehend.  No matter.  Jesus still came to them in that moment and gave them an important task, a task that would completely change their lives and would forever characterize those who follow in the Way of Jesus.  Jesus commanded them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations.   

And in doing so, Jesus awoke in the disciples a holy dissatisfaction with life as it had been. Going forward, the disciples would not be content with holding the Good News that they had received to themselves; rather they would have a strong desire to share it with others through teaching, healing, acts of mercy and justice, and invitations to other to enter into the life of their spiritual family. 

Now, if we have grown up in the church, we are probably very well aware of Jesus’ command.  It is something we Christians have named “The Great Commission,” and for millennia, we have seen Christians follow this Great Commission, bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to every continent on this earth. 

Throughout every age, and including our modern times, however, there has been a common misunderstanding regarding this command, a misunderstanding we must wrestle with today. You see, there has been a sense that Jesus somehow meant this command for a special class of people – you know, the ones we call missionaries, evangelists, pastors, priests, nuns and monks; the ones who are especially people-oriented and eloquent in speech, the ones who have a particularly solid faith and strong connection with God and special call from him.  

For a great number of believers, however, especially for those who have had any questions and doubts about their faith or have been more introverted in personality or less good at communication, this command has not seemed to apply to them, and so while the Great Commission has seemed like a nice sentiment, it has not gone fully heeded by many.  

Yet, Jesus never intended for this command to be for a special class of people who were rock solid in their faith or wired in a certain way.  When Jesus first gave this command more than 2000 years ago, he gave it to ragtag group of fisherman and tax collectors and common people in general. He gave it to people like Peter who just days before had denied him in front of the Sanhedrin and to Thomas who doubted the stories that Jesus was resurrected and demanded proof.  

He gave it to people who had no power or authority in themselves to be able to do this work.  No matter.  Jesus still gave this command, forthe disciples’ power and authority didn’t matter, for they would not be doing this in their own, but would be doing this all in the power of the Holy Spirit and under the authority of Jesus himself, who held all authority in heaven and on earth.

So, 2000 years ago, as an outflow of his authority, Jesus gave the Great Commission, and when he did so, he intended it for all who would call themselves his disciples. No one was excluded from this command.  Jesus knew that his disciples would always be in process – no one ever would ever quite be ready to be sent out.  No one ever would be holy enough or have enough faith.  No problem.  This call was intended for all, and Jesus would equip and mold his disciples to be more and more like him and to share the Good News as they went forth and obeyed his command. 

Yet interestingly enough friends, even given this truth, quite a few Christians throughout time and in modern times have not fully heeded this call, and we have to wonder why.

Well, while I can’t answer this question fully – for I don’t know everyone’s hearts, I do suspect that many people’s resistance to the Great Commission in modern times goes beyond their sense that they are not part of a special class of people called to obey this command.  

I suspect that many modern American Christians place the Great Commission to the side because the Good News has become overly personalized and individualized, like much of modern western religious experience.  Thus, they have been satisfied with the truth that “Jesus died for me” and “loves me as I am” without feeling compelled to share this experience with others.  This coupled with an increasing embrace of pluralism, which accepts that all paths lead to God, impedes one from experiencing a holy dissatisfaction which compels one to share the Good News with others.

I also suspect that for many modern American Christians, the Good News has been forgotten or at least left in the abstract, so that they fail to see how it interacts with the day-in and day-out details of their lives; is a vessel of tremendous hope for not only today, but for eternity; and is main anchor point for their identity.   Thus, if the Good News has ceased being Good News for themselves, how could it be Good News for others?  

Finally, I suspect that many avoid the Great Commission because heeding it will invariable involve some kind of sacrifice, suffering, rejection, or social exclusion, and that possibility stands in opposition to the general trajectory of the American Dream and the “pursuit of happiness”.

Friends, when you hear these reasons for avoiding the Great Commission, including the idea that this is only for a special class of Christians, do any of these resonate with your own personal experience?  If they do, just take notice of them and place them before God and ask him for his wisdom and guidance.  God undoubtedly has an invitation for you.

Also, know that you are not alone.  At various points in my life, I have experienced all of these.  I think many of us have, and the point of me highlighting these today is not to awake a sense of shame or guilt in any of us, but to offer up an invitation to us, a very good invitation to remember who God is, who we are, and what our purpose in life is, which will invariably lead us to follow the Great Commission.    

For you see, the Great Commission is not an arbitrary command that God gave us.  Rather it is an invitation from the very heart of God – an outflow of his very being and a hallmark of allwho follow in the Way of Jesus.

As William talked about last week, our God is not a static God.  He is a God who is continually active, creating things out of nothing, and sustaining the world at every moment.  He is a sending God.  From the beginning of time, he was active in sending the Holy Spirit and the prophets to guide his people, draw them near to his heart, and send them out to be a blessing to all nations.  And, of course, in the culmination of time, because of God’s great love for the world, God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to bring about its redemption.  

The Apostle John reminds us in his Gospel that it is because God is a sending God, as well as a sent God, that is also why his disciples are also sent.  As Jesus said to his disciples on one occasion after his resurrection, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.  . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)

So, you see, that is who God is at his very core:  God is a sent God; therefore, his disciples are to be a sent people, not a static people who have a personalized, individualized faith who hoard the Good News to themselves.  No, rather disciples are to be ones who are have a holy dissatisfaction, unable to rest knowing that there are others who have not received the Good News.  Disciples are to be the ones who then go out into the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit, under Jesus’ authority, and with Jesus’ continual presence, for Jesus promised his disciples at the conclusion of the Great Commission that he would be with them always. 

This is a great comfort, friends.  But we then might ask:  How exactly are disciples to go about being a sent people?  Well, Jesus made it clear.  Disciples were to make other disciples by inviting and baptizing others into God’s family and by teaching them all that Jesus commanded.  

Now I want to pause here, because I feel as if this is one of the things that trip people up when they think about the Great Commission, for it can easily sound as if the Great Commission actually does only apply to a special class of people, to people like me and like William who specifically baptize people and who have a teaching and preaching ministry.  

Indeed, what William and I do is very important, but it is not the whole of the Great Commission.  For inviting others into the family of God (which leads to baptism) is something we all can do.  

Teaching all that Jesus commanded is also something we can all do, and such teaching is not limited to preaching or to teaching Bible classes and Sunday school classes.  Nor is it simply about helping others get doctrines right (although doctrine and theology is certainly important).  

Rather, teaching all that Jesus commanded entails life-on-life discipleship in community where believers help less mature believers and individuals who do not yet know Jesus to live and to love like Jesus did and to be part of his family.  

This is something that can be done by anybody and can include praying together, reading the Scriptures together, and discussing the meaning of Christianity together.  It can involve engaging in acts of care, compassion, mercy, and justice that show others the heart of who Jesus is and what he intends for this world.  

In reality, the sky is really the limit when it comes to teaching what Jesus commanded.  God can use anyone in all kinds of unique ways to do this.  

So, for example, at the beginning of this sermon, I spoke about Harriet Tubman.  You might wonder why, because she was not specifically a preacher or pastor, but that is okay.   Harriet was a sent one – she told others that she never ventured unless God sent her, and she had great hope in his guidance and presence with her.   And by simply being fervent in her life of prayer and faith, sharing about her relationship with God with others, and then loving what God loves – His people and their freedom – Harriet lived out the Great Commission in her life.  She shared the Good News in a tangible way, and she of course did so in an incredibly risky way.

Harriet embodied what so many believers unfortunately lack.  She had a large view of God’s redemptive plans, she had great hope in her Savior and shared that hope with others, and she didn’t fear the potential of suffering as she carried out her call.

We would all be wise to follow in Harriet’s footsteps.  We might not be called to anything as grand as Harriet, but it would do us good to be like her and to remember how the Good News is specifically Good News for us, in our everyday lives, even when we are suffering.  It would do us good to have so much hope in God that we do not fear the risks it might involve in sharing the Good News in word and deed.  And it would do us good to share with others how Jesus is specifically working in our lives.


Now friends, while we don’t have much time today to explore Peter’s letter that we heard earlier, I do believe that Peter’s letter can be an encouragement to us as we seek to remember the Good News for ourselves and as we seek to take hold of the hope and the call that flows out of that Good News.

I encourage you, when you go home, to go back and read 1 Peter starting at the beginning and going into Chapter 2.

Writing to a group of Gentile believers undergoing persecution, Peter reminded these believers of who they were and what Christ had done for them.  They were a people who had been born again into a new identity, a new family, a spiritual house.  They had been freed from the futile ways of their forefathers by the blood of Christ and born again of imperishable seed.  Therefore, they were to embrace a new hope, a new character, and a new call.  

Their new hope was the salvation of their souls, so that no matter what life brought them (even suffering and persecution), they knew they had a good and glorious future that was secure in God’s hands.  

Their new character was they were called to be holy just as Jesus was holy; that meant they were to be set-aside and not conformed to the ways of their forefathers or their current culture.  It didn’t mean that they would be perfect, but it did mean that they would open themselves up to God to slowly but surely change them to be more like himself.  

And their new call was that they were love one another from a pure heart arising of their born-again status, their new identity.  And this, by the way,  was all to be done in a specific context where they were being persecuted.

Friends, this is who the Gentile believers were to whom Peter wrote, and this is who we are also – a people with a new identity – a ransomed and thus free, set-aside, hopeful people whose life in Jesus should be so compelling that we can’t keep this Good News – this freedom, love, and hope – to ourselves, but have to share it with others. 

Friends, as we go through the busyness of life and settle into the routine of church life, it is important that we not forget who we are or what the Good News looks like very tangibly in our lives.

It is important that we not forget the hope we cling onto – hope in Jesus forever presence with us and hope in eternal life, a hope that enlivens us even in the midst of suffering, sometimes even suffering brought about because of our identity in Christ or our call from him.

And then it is important that we go out into the world, extending God’s love and redemptive plans, acting as his hands and feet in the world, in a myriad of ways no matter who we are or how much we are in process in the Christian life.  For, friends, we all are in process.

So, as we come to the end of the sermon today: this is the question I have for you.  Mission Cincinnati, Jesus has given us the Great Commission, a wonderful invitation to join him in expanding his family and in sharing his incredible love and redemptive plans with the world.   

Will we accept this invitation, allowing it to create a holy dissatisfaction in us regarding all who don’t know Jesus and his Good News?  Will we too say, “We are free in Christ, so they should be free too”?  

And then will we go forth with courage and conviction, sharing Jesus’ love, grace, healing, and freedom with those who have not yet received these good gifts, adding day by the day the number of brothers and sisters we have in our spiritual family, and transforming the world.  My prayer is that we will.  

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.