In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly every movie that was set in New York City begins with an establishing shot of a graffiti-covered subway. In an article and podcast episode that describes this and the New York Transit authorities attempts at cleaning up the subway it writes:
That graffiti was like illegible technicolor hieroglyphics—a language that even most New Yorkers couldn’t read. It gave you a sense that the subways controlled by wild gangs of teenagers. And they kind of were. - 99% Invisible
The sense in these scenes is that the city officials had lost control of the subway. And they had.
For nearly two decades, the transit authority tried to fix the problem with little success. They attempted to re-classify graffiti into a crime, which had little effect. They at one point decided to repaint 7,000 subway cars white as a fresh start, which did nothing but provide a blank canvas for the vandals. And they even tried a “berlin wall” method, which surrounded the trains with two fences topped with barbed wire and guarded by dogs.
But like the previous methods, this eventually was easily bypassed by some wire cutters and food to distract the guard dogs. The transit authority was hopelessly failing to keep the trains clean and their repeated attempts at cleaning up the subway system was laughable at best.
Trying to Clean Up Our Own Mess
As a family, we’ve been trying to teach my toddler son to clean up after himself. Before and after meals, he will make a mess of the bathroom as he attempts to wash his hands. When he tries to pick up toy, his attempt is usually cut short by a discovery of a hidden treasure that was lost underneath a pile of other toys. Teaching a toddler to clean up his mess is short lived and laughable. We hardly ever find success and the mess sticks around until my wife or I jump into help.
The life of a toddler and the life of the New York Transit Authority in the 80s are not all that different, are they? They are supposed to clean up the mess and they maybe even attempt to clean up the mess, but they hardly make a dent in the mess that is actually a problem.
And our own lives are not all that different. Sin creates a mess. Isaiah 64:6 describes our mess when it writes, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” And our first response is often, “How do I clean up this mess?” And in our attempts to clean up the mess, our results are either short-lived or laughable.
Instead of praying the prayer of David when he says, “Have mercy on me, God… wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,” we try to figure out what products will wash away the stains of sin the best.
What sins have stained you?
What sins have left a faded red mark reminded you of the words you said? What sins have sins have stained your conscience and left you with shame for what you did? And while you’ve tried to scrub the stains away, what stains can you not seem to forget about?
In John 13, Jesus is having a meal with his disciples and Jesus does what he always does, he serves. And in this meal he does something significant as he gets down and washes the disciples feet. When Peter refuses, Jesus responds, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” There’s this sense that the washing that comes from Jesus is so significant that it is directly tied to Peter’s union with Christ.
And this washing language isn’t new to Jesus’ ministry. When talking to some religious leaders Jesus said:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” - Matthew 23:25-26
Jesus makes it clear, you can’t wash yourselves. For these religious leaders, they’ve gotten really good at looking clean on the outside, but Jesus suggest that they’ve done nothing more than learn how to be good at covering up the real mess. Jesus is suggesting that they’ve done nothing more than painting over the graffiti; they might try to wash themselves but their results are laughable at best.
Jesus washes the stains that we can’t wash for ourselves. Jesus rinses our sin-stained conscience with his death and resurrection. Jesus washes us in his blood. The sin that stains our conscience is washed in the blood that stained the cross. The blood of Jesus cleanses us, inside and out, setting us free from the weight and burden of sin. The blood of Jesus wipes away every stain of shame and guilt and replaces it with the promise that our sins are forgiven.
In Corinthians, Paul writes:
“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of our God.”
Jesus washes us in his blood. The blood that was shed on the cross is poured out for you so that you might have peace.