Great is the baptism that lies before you: the ransom of captives, the forgiveness of sins, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy perpetual seal, a chariot to heaven, the delight of paradise, a welcome into the kingdom, the gift of adoption.
-Cyril of Jerusalem
I first met Kevin Adams as an energetic, young church planter trying to finish off my seminary degree. Kevin was a new faculty member in the program I was enrolled in, and I had heard he’d planted a flourishing church in California and mentored a number of other church planters. So I was more than a little surprised when the first lecture he offered our cohort… was a two-hour teaching on the history and practice of baptism. That afternoon, I realized that Kevin Adams wasn’t a garden variety church planter.
He unfolded the rich, many-sided imagery of Christian baptism and its essential place in Christian mission and formation. And he connected for me the way in which baptism, and all its connections in the water-narratives throughout Holy Scripture, picture God’s creating and rescuing work in Christ. He helped me see that, to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright, “water tells the story”– the story of life out of death, freedom from slavery:
- God generates creation out of watery nothingness, speaking life into being after separating the primordial waters.
- God rescues Noah through the de-creating flood into a new life in a new creation.
- Moses undergoes an infant baptism: passing through certain death in the waters of the Nile into a new life with a new vocation to serve YHWH.
- God hears the cries of helpless slaves, and emancipates them by bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea into freedom.
- Israel crosses the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land, into a new life in a home to call their own as God’s people.
- Jesus is plunged into the Jordan, taking his place as one of us, even as he is publicly marked out as the Beloved.
- Jesus promises living water to satisfy the soul-thirsts of a Samaritan outcast.
- On the cross, blood and water flow from the side of Jesus, anticipating the table and font where the Church continues to meet our crucified and risen Savior.
Water tells the story.
This is why I’m thrilled Kevin’s distilled his substantive engagement with the practice of baptism in the recently-released book, Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life.
It’s not the standard book on baptism, answering the standard set of questions about the nature of the sacrament and its proper administration. This is a lively exploration of the baptismal life, an imaginative work on the implications of the way in which the waters of baptism ripple through the whole of Christian identity, life, and mission.
Adams pictures baptism as a “script” in which we participate to live out the narrative of freedom, life, and mission in Christ. His book is theologically rigorous, while eminently accessible, and he draws on decades of experience as a church planter, pastor, and mentor to unfold the rich nuances of meaning the waters of baptism have for all of Christian life.
Living Under Water is refreshingly ecumenical, as well, drawing on the breadth of baptismal practice across varied Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox communions in exploring baptism’s formative possibilities for the Church. It explores the way in which baptism shapes Christian identity, and the several ways it forms Christians, in putting to death our old life and clothing us in the new life of Christ.
Adams takes time to bring baptismal practice into conversation with several of the issues that continue to trouble the contemporary Church in the West: our capitulation to identity politics, our political and cultural divisions, the Church’s ugly history of spiritual abuse, and our deep entanglements in racism. Adams follows Yale theologian Willie James Jennings in picturing Christian baptism as an “event of disruption” with the capacity to reshape our all-too-frequent collusion with the ways of the world.
Kevin Adams closes Living Under Water with a vulnerable section in which he narrates his diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. It’s a poignant reflection on the healing which baptism pictures, both in the here-and-now, and the ultimate hope of healed, eternal life in God’s new creation.
I had this last part of his book in mind recently as I led a funeral for a faithful, long-time member of the church I serve. At the close of the service, I splashed water from the baptismal font generously across the casket at the front of the church sanctuary, declaring: “Richard has completed his baptism — he’s fought the fight, finished the race, kept the faith.”
I’m grateful for the way Kevin Adams’ wise work in Living Under Water could help other followers of Jesus do the same.