I’ve just returned from getting my eighteen-year-old son Frederick settled in Amsterdam, where he’ll be training at the European School of Ballet over this coming year. We had various logistics to deal with, but my number one priority was making sure he had a church and pastor to care for him in the weeks and months ahead of him. Thankfully, we were able to accomplish that goal.
The ballet studios and dormitory where Frederick will be living and working are housed in what used to be a Roman Catholic Church and Rectory, although the buildings were significantly renovated to serve their new purpose. The history behind the transition is quite interesting, and in some ways surprising, as it was the neighborhood and the new owners of the property that wanted to preserve as much of the history of the church as possible. Roman Catholic protocol, however, is that decommissioned churches should be “unchurched” as much as possible, in order to avoid any confusion between the sacred and profane. That makes sense, and I appreciate the concern that the Church’s unique purposes and functions not be blurred with secular activities.
By way of contrast, the Lutheran Church in Antwerp, Belgium — which is, sadly enough, the closest and most accessible orthodox Lutheran Church in the relative proximity of Amsterdam (even though it is in another country and a two-hour train ride away) — the Lutheran Church in Antwerp is housed in what was simply an apartment home. The same building does still serve as the pastor’s home, but the lower level has been modified to serve and function very nicely as the Sanctuary and Nave of the church, spaces now sanctified by the Word and Flesh of Christ Jesus.
Certainly, we can and do distinguish between sacred and secular spaces, and it is quite right that we should demarcate and set apart those places and spaces that are used for the preaching of the Holy Scriptures and the administration of the Holy Sacraments. It is likewise meet, right, and salutary to adorn those spaces with beauty and with visual depictions of our Lord and His saints. The sacred Word and Sacraments of our Lord Jesus Christ are indeed “Most Holy,” and they sanctify the places in which they are administered and the people who receive them in holy faith.
It is also good and right, however, that we recognize the goodness of God’s Creation, and the way that His First Article gifts are also to be received in faith and with thanksgiving; and not only that, but those gifts also are sanctified by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4-5). While those gifts are not the Gospel, they are good gifts nonetheless, given to us by the grace of God.
Likewise, our godly occupations, vocations, and stations in life — wherein and whereby we glorify God, give thanks to Him, and bless and serve our neighbors in many and various ways (including not only the trades and sciences, politics and economics, education and church work, but also the arts, music, painting, literature, and even dance) — all of these are holy and sacred endeavors, inasmuch as we ourselves are sanctified by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus.
For my son Frederick, his dormitory and dance studios are sacred spaces, not because they are housed in a former church, but because he is a Christian, baptized in the Name of the Lord and living by His grace through faith in His Gospel. So, too, he is living and working in the place where God has stationed him at this point in his life. And so it is for each of us — as pastors, yes, but so also for all those Christians under our pastoral care, whom we are given to love and serve in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ with His good Gifts of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. As the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, and sanctifies and keeps us in Christ Jesus in the one true faith, we as the children of God also lead holy lives according to His Holy Word — each of us within his or her own place, in relation to our neighbors in this life.
As we are gathered by the Word and Spirit of God to hear the preaching of Christ Jesus and to receive His Body and His Blood each week in His Holy Supper, we enter into sacred space — into the fulfillment of the Lord’s good Creation — no matter how large or small, ornate or sparse, new or historic that space may be. And it is by those “Most Holy” Gifts of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that we ourselves are sanctified, along with all that we do in holy faith and holy love.
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth! Splendor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His Sanctuary” (Psalm 95:6; 96:9, 6).