Fearless preacher made Jesus real for others
Last month, the Revd Dr John Smith, founder of God's Squad Christian Motorcycle Club International, Concern Australia and St Martin's Community Church in Collingwood, lost his long battle with cancer. Nils von Kalm reflects on a man he calls a "true prophet".
By Nils von Kalm
April 16 2019“I can’t believe the news today;
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” – U2
When I heard about the passing of John Smith, I have to confess I was shocked. It was always coming, given he had struggled with cancer for years, but like any sadness you are expecting, nothing can prepare you for when it actually happens. It was a sad, reflective day for me.
John Smith drew people to Jesus. He is the only person I know who had that Christlike characteristic of unconditionally accepting people while critiquing the lifestyles of those same people.
Put simply, John Smith was one of the biggest influences in my life. He was the first preacher I ever heard who talked about Christian faith being relevant to the here and now rather than just about a life in the hereafter.
In these days when it is easy to write and speak about Jesus, John did that and lived it with total commitment. As a result, his words had prophetic, Spirit-inspired authority. When John preached, you couldn’t help but listen. Many good speakers have charisma, but John cut through all the Christian jargon and said it like a true prophet always does: with conviction, righteous rage and a passion that came from a life lived with Christlike authenticity.
True prophets don’t worry what others think of them. They are just concerned with God’s truth. The tragic irony is that their most strident criticisms come from their own people. It was the same with John. From the day he was sacked by a well-known Christian evangelistic organisation for going to exactly the sort of place where Jesus would be, his biggest critics came from inside the church.
At the same time, John was one of those rare prophets who lived a full life. So many before him – Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jesus himself – were cut down before their time. John came close a few times; most notably in the Philippines in 1989 when he faced execution for standing up for poor peasants whose villages were being bulldozed. It didn’t stop him though; he said at the time he would do it again.
I recently wrote an essay on the life of John Wesley, who went around England on horseback preaching the gospel and transforming the culture. John Smith has been called John Wesley on a Harley. But just as Martin Luther King was referred to as “our Moses” by his contemporaries in the civil rights movement, in terms of biblical characters, John Smith was surely our John the Baptist, raging against injustice in the wilderness that has been much of the church on that matter. Both Johns were quite happy to have themselves decrease while Jesus increased. I could imagine that John Smith, with his love of nature, would have been more than happy eating locusts and wild honey out in the desert like his namesake, just as long as he could live out and preach his beloved Jesus. He was fearless, tireless and energetic. His last sermon was preached just a week before his passing.
What I remember about John was his prophetic rage and tears. He showed me that it’s ok for a man to cry, and to do so in public. He was a man filled with the Spirit of God, the God who weeps and rages at injustice.
I remember back in 1988 when I would sometimes go to hear John preach. I was a reserved, pretty timid young man, and John would talk about Jesus having a go at the Pharisees and turning over the tables in the temple. Through his passionate, uncompromising preaching, he showed me an assertive Jesus. It attracted me because that was what I wasn’t but it was what I needed to be. I was still a boy in a young man’s body. But I learned through John’s preaching about the man Jesus, the fearless Jesus who took the bull by its horns. It gave me life and made God more real to me than ever. I had never felt more alive than at that time.
John also said what was unpopular, but he never enjoyed doing it. He often made the point that he gained no pleasure from speaking out against the sins of the church. A true prophet loves the church, and John Smith was a true prophet. He was the antithesis of the so-called self-proclaimed prophets of today who spout unChristian “truths” to an audience that naively laps up every word.
John made us uncomfortable. He told us that God is more interested in your character than your comfort. He once meticulously went through the gospels and listed all the occurrences where Jesus comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. He challenged us about who our friends were, that if our closest friends were the rich and powerful and our enemies were the poor and outcast, that we were almost certainly not following Jesus of Nazareth.
As I reflected on John’s life the day I heard of his passing, I remembered that, like St Paul, he was absolutely convinced that Jesus is who he said he is. He had an unshakeable conviction that Jesus was real. On that sad day, I realised again that there has to be more to life than what we see in the here and now. And it has to be around love, a love that is greater than anything else in existence and that is more important than anything we place importance on. That was the impact of John’s life on me. He made Jesus real because he lived it like no one else I have ever known. John Smith ate, slept and breathed Jesus. And it wasn’t in a fundamentalist, cringeworthy way. It was the very opposite; he made Jesus so much more attractive.
The great Christian hope is that one day, heaven and earth will be joined. It will be a day when all relationships will be transformed. There will be no more tears, no more pain, no more injustice and no more death. John Smith gave his life for that hope. If ever it can be said of someone, “well done good and faithful servant”, it will have been said by Jesus the moment after John’s passing when he entered his rest.
Like all of us, John had his flaws. When he was asked once how he would like to be remembered, he said he would like it to be as someone who did his best with the gifts he was given. I don’t think anyone who knew him will doubt that his wish will come true.
John once said that when he gets to heaven, he wants to ask Jesus three things: why is there so much racism in the world, why are women treated so badly, and why was John the Baptist killed before his time? Now you have your answer John, and I just reckon there’ll be plenty more you’ll be wanting to talk about too. See you again. Thanks for helping me get to know Jesus.
Nils von Kalm is Church and Community Engagement Coordinator at Anglican Overseas Aid. His tribute to John Wesley will be published in a
future edition of TMA.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Sight Magazine. See www.sightmagazine.com.au
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