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Palm Sunday isn’t about the parade, procession, a prophecy fulfilled, or the palms. It’s about the search for the ongoing answer to the question Jesus first posed to the disciples in Matthew 16, “Whom do you say that I am?” At the core of the Palm Sunday events, we find the disciples, crowds, temple leaders, and Roman elites all asking the last question from today’s gospel lesson, “Who is this guy on the donkey?” Is he just a teacher from Galilee, or is he something more? There are lots of excited people gathered in the streets. At first glance, the event looks like some popular revolt or protest. (Some things never change, look at the news from Israel even today.)

Few people recognize him. Is he the rabbi from Nazareth? Who is the man at the center of this ill-formed parade? What is his name? Do they call him Jesus? Whom does he claim to be? Is he an anointed one or a teacher, a prophet, all three, or something else? Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15) The crowd asks, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10-11)

This is what Palm Sunday is about. Palm Sunday is a question of identity. It’s the quest for the historical Jesus, the theological Jesus, the economic Jesus, the sociological Jesus, the Jewish Jesus, the Christian Jesus; it’s everything we’ve tried to see Jesus as and understand him to be for the past two thousand years simplified by these two questions from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus wants to know whom we think he is, and others want to know our understanding of Jesus’ identity. So who is Jesus for us, and who is for the world?

Is Jesus more than just your savior? Is he just a guy on a donkey you see in a crowd from a distance? Like spotting Santa Claus across a sea of people at a chilly December Christmas parade? You know Jesus and what he does, but does he impact your life?

Who is Jesus to you? On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus from a distance, say we believe, and go about our business and move on. That’s the reality of Holy Week for the masses. Is this the extent of our relationship with Jesus? We claim it’s personal, but I believe many of us have never given Jesus’ question in Matthew 16 much thought. We know whom the church says Jesus is, but who do we think Jesus is, and how does that impact how we live our lives and relate to our other people?

As we approach Palm Sunday, how might we answer the Matthew 16 question more precisely than the Joe Friday “just the facts” version found in Matthew 21?

I say Jesus is my friend. To quote Snoopy, I need all the friends I can get. So, I say he is my friend.

I say Jesus is someone who brings out the best in me. When I’m in the presence of the resurrection, my whole perspective changes. I see death as a lie. I see Jesus’ message of hope, life, and love as something which can heal my brokenness at my most profound level.

I say Jesus is the person who does what I cannot do for myself. Jesus saves me. I cannot save myself. I do not accept the pull oneself up by your bootstrap’s myth of American exceptionalism and that we are all self-made people who make it by our initiative. I also need Jesus. I can do nothing without Christ. Christ is my savior. In my weakness, I rely on his strength. There is no shame in admitting my faults. Why? Because Jesus, my friend Jesus loves me and makes me a better person than I would be without him. When I look at the world through his eyes, I can see. Without him by my side and in my life, I am blind to suffering, oppression, evil, and sin.

Palm Sunday isn’t really about the parade or the palms. Instead, it’s a gut check. Palm Sunday is about Jesus’ identity. Before we go to the cross, we all have to ask ourselves, who do you say Jesus is?

–Richard Bryant