In the early nineteenth century, Holy Trinity Clapham was probably the most interesting church in the country to attend. As many of you may know, debates over the slave trade dominated the public discourse at this time, dividing national opinion – and this church in Clapham was the epicentre of this division. The leading lights of those proposing the abolition of the slave trade were known disparagingly as the ‘Clapham Sect’, because many of them lived locally and worshipped at Holy Trinity. On the other hand, many wealthy traders with interests in the Caribbean also lived in this genteel corner of south London. And, at Holy Trinity on Sunday, there would be a literal division on show: abolitionists would sit on one side of the church, pro-slavery campaigners on the other. (One can only imagine what coffee and chat was like after the service!)
The fact that we may find it hard to fathom why the debate over slavery took so long to resolve is indicative of which side ‘won’ – the tide of history turned against those who saw slavery as acceptable, and now it is more or less taken for granted amongst developed nations that slavery is an abomination.
But we should not forget how powerful the urge to maintain the status quo was. Those who promoted the benefits of slavery were popular and well-regarded for a very long time. That they proved to be on the wrong side of history was by no means assured. Indeed, it is sobering to reflect that, in the end, what brought about the abolition of slavery in Parliament in 1833 was a bill which remunerated slave owners (and not the slaves themselves) for their ‘loss’.
In today’s passage we see a similar polarisation starting to develop around the identity and ministry of Jesus. Thus far, Jesus has been attracting plenty of attention, and numerous questions from those unsure about what this ‘new’ thing really was. However, after Jesus directly challenged the Pharisees’ theology of the Sabbath, suddenly their mood turns from one of bemusement or suspicion to outright opposition. They start to wonder if it might not be better to do away with Jesus entirely (v6).
This is one of those moments when the section breaks in our modern English bibles aren’t totally helpful. Verse 6 is very much a ‘link’ verse between the two sections, and arguably fits better with vv7-12, because it shows how Jesus now sits between two very polarised groups of people. On the one hand, the religious elite want to kill him (v6). On the other, he is a cult hero with much of the rest of the population, who follow him everywhere (v7), including many desperate for miracles of healing (v8). Indeed, Jesus is a little concerned for his safety, as the crowd are getting difficult to manage (v9).
It’s easy to look back now and judge the Pharisees for being on the wrong side of history. But let’s not forget, firstly, that most of those following Jesus here also turned against him eventually; and secondly, that we all find it hard when our much-loved traditions are being challenged. There is a mini-Pharisee inside all of us – may our gracious Lord grant us all grace to see both Jesus and ourselves clearly, that we might continue to be on the right side, not just of history, but of his story.